Welcome to my reporter blog. It’s a personal way to share my professional life. The decades of interesting work that became rudely interrupted by something that has resulted in a whole new piece of work. My life is the subject of a memoir, Crash Course: A Reporter’s Journey into Prison, co-written with my husband, novelist Philip Austin. The manuscript, excerpted here, is currently under consideration by several major publishers. It’s a stark, often funny, hopefully intriguing examination of my lost and found years of rape, alcoholism, and eventually incarceration in our nation’s oldest women’s prison. Recently I was interviewed by Dick Gordon, host of American Public Media’s The Story, http://thestory.org/an in-depth discussion of how a veteran NPR reporter ended up behind the razor wire for nearly five years. Airing date and archive link will be published on this blog soon, as well as ongoing links to publishing and broadcast credits as they emerge. It’s been a long, strange trip, lots of ups and downs, disasters and epiphanies, as I reenter the reporter’s world I so love, and left behind an eternity ago. Thanks for visiting. Feel free to leave a note. I’d love to hear from you. Pippin.
“Don’t even try to get yourself out of the mess you got yourself into.”
– Probation Officer Dumas-
Cattle call, morning District Court where, on most days, a pile of people pack the benches and hallways, waiting to be arraigned on a mishmash of mess-ups. Waiting, and more waiting. Finally my name is called, and I find myself standing before Judge McElroy, hoping we share some genetic, clannish affinity with the verdant heathlands where Scotch whiskey was born.
‘Ms. Ross, how do you plead to a third offense of operating under the influence?’ “Not guilty, your honor.”
For the first time ever I really mean it. I wasn’t drunk, but driving to the gym to fight off a hangover from a nasty five day ‘relapse’. This is how the Beast works. Once it suspects it’s being shut-off for good, as in attempted sobriety, it exercises vengeance like a rabid dog announcing: ‘I was once your loving, loyal pet, now all I want is to kill you!’
This one interrupted my longest stint of chemical abstinence and clarity since declaring I was an official alcoholic. It was a flash of forgetting that all of my sadly addiction insanity had already ended my marriage, broken my child’s heart, put my career on a defibrillator, and me into rehab and prison. But, any drunk will tell you—-we’re always the last to know and the slowest to own it.
I was driving an ancient Volvo with a lethargic clutch, sick from a toxic hangover. On a mission to speed the evaporation of the lingering alcohol basting my cells with a good shot of gym-triggered dopamine, I popped the clutch. The car lurched forward, stalling at an uphill stop forced by road construction. As I struggled to restart the old car, a cop car pulled up behind me. I’d been recently granted a ‘hardship’ license that allows twelve hours a day to exercise survival skills like getting to work and picking up kids, a small mercy for a convicted drunk driver trying to hold the fractured pieces of her life together. In my rearview, one of the cops flags me over to the shoulder. Either bored, or genuinely concerned, he asks me to perform a field sobriety test.
‘Goddammit, won’t you guys ever leave me alone?” I growl.
“Go ahead,’ he says, “stand up right now and take ten steps heel-to-toe without losing your balance. Then, stand with one leg held straight out in front of you without wobbling.”
Try those two poses right now, without wobbling. I can’t even touch my nose with my index finger with my eyes closed sober without missing my nose two out of three tries. A cop once asked me to say the alphabet backwards. Backwards? (Turns out, that’s illegal.) Another told me to say it ‘without the song, honey’. I wasn’t singing the song, I was honoring the rhythm by which almost all of us Americans learned the alphabet: ABC (emphasis on) D…EFG (pause) HIJK-elimeno P! (pause) QRST (pause) UVW (pause) XYZ, now I’ve said my ABC’s, Tell me what you think of me.
“You’re under arrest, that’s what I think of you,” Was his laconic response. OUI number three.
This time is different, though. I’m not drunk, not technically anyway. Just hung-over and needing to sweat the booze out on the stationary bike. Pissed, and impatient, I just want to go. I do the ten steps backward and the stork dance. I’m not drunk. The cop will see that, and wave me on, vindicated like a patient finding out his carcinoma is really just a bad zit. Right?
Wrong. The rules of engagement change when you’re on probation, from slightly negotiable to zero tolerance. One millionth of a millimeter is enough to set the Breathalyzer on apoplectic mode. An expert at being a drunk, I know the beast’s physiognomy. A hangover is the unpleasant sensation of vestigial alcohol still doing the rounds. Not enough to maintain the buzz, but more than enough to swear-off alcohol forever, at least until the next drink begins the cycle again.
Still, I did what every drunk driver is advised to do and every probationer knows is complete surrender to the system―I refuse the Breathalyzer.
‘Not guilty, your honor.’ I say in the wearily resigned voice the punitive echo chamber of court fosters. I am standing alone. If you’re wondering why I went into this round without a lawyer at my side, I do too. All the lawyers I’d called simply said, ‘No problem. Just go to the arraignment. Plead not guilty and call me when you get home with the next court date.’
What I don’t know, yet, is that my alleged ‘lawyer buddies’ are intentionally keeping their distance. Nobody wants to witness the equivalent of my entering the Coliseum to be ripped apart by lions. I’d just ripped through three OUI’s in nine months without ‘doing real time’, thanks to their legal ‘nit-slickery’. They were communicating to me, soto voce, the grim sidebar of lawyer-speak, reciting the classic definition of an addict’s insanity, ‘You’re fucked. I’m not interested in getting involved with someone who just had her ass saved and went out and did it all over again.’
Similar to mandatory drug sentencing laws, the statutes on drunk driving don’t leave much room for judges to be judges. At the moment, a 1st is sixteen weeks of drunk school; A 2nd is ninety days in prison, or a two week residential drunk program; A 3rd is six months; A 4th is one year. Killing someone drunk driving is five years minimum mandatory. Lives would have been saved for a lot of people if our country had imposed zero tolerance for drunk driving around the time cars were invented. That’s when every other country on the planet deployed zero tolerance to wisely wipe-out the death and sadness brought by the American drunk’s mantra: ‘Hmmm, am I too drunk to drive? Naw!’
Things are going…uh…sort of well, when suddenly, from the front row, Probation officer Dumas jumps up. A Napoleonic squirt of a probation officer, Dumas is smitten by an ailment common to entry-level authoritarians: a deep and unsatisfied desire to be a cop or a lawyer. When a probationer is in trouble, Dumas gets to play prosecutor.
‘Your Honor!’ He squeaks, more Jimmy Olsen than Perry Mason, ‘This is her 6th OUI, not her 3rd!’
‘But the police report …’ McElroy begins flipping through the inches of legal documents my alcoholic wilding has generated.
Dumas shakes his head. ‘The police report is wrong!’
The judge rolls his eyes and sighs, ‘Take her downstairs until this afternoon so I can have some time to figure this out.’ A court officer moves in on me with handcuffs. When I pass, Dumas gives me a smug grin. Joel, sitting in the back row of the gallery, tilts his head. A strange glint of pity and relief crosses his face. As he stands to leave, like a guilt-absolved Catholic after Mass, he tosses a supportive little wave my way as I disappear down into the caged catacombs.
Lock-down. I have a fashion suggestion to those Vogue magazine photo spreads of emaciated, exhausted crack-whore waifs in smeared eye shadow and torn fishnet stockings: A professional woman in a Liz Claiborne suit mournfully sitting next to a metal toilet in handcuffs.
A pro bono lawyer (for ‘pro bono publico, Latin, ‘for the public good’; or basic American for ‘free legal service when in deep shit’) sidles up to the grate in the court basement holding tank. Pro bonos are either fresh out of law school pups, or old, beat hacks. All lawyers are ethically required to be in rotation to provide their services for the down and out, but the well-established wriggle out of it with well-connected excuses. The only time an upper- echelon lawyer will take on a case for free is when it’s a high-enough profile case with juicy media exposure. Law school pups are still inspired enough to believe that justice exists. Judges are typically sensitive and accommodating to their virginity. The elders generally suffer from profound burn-out, like the alcoholic ambulance chaser Paul Newman plays in the movie, Malice.
“Welcome to another $70 an hour gig,’ I say to my Birkenstock-shuffling variation on Paul Newman. He blinks at me, startled out of his paper-shuffling torpor, ‘How do you know that?’
I’m too exhausted to tell him I’d just done a story on a protest to increase pro bono pay in Massachusetts to match forty eight other state’s wages.
‘I don’t know.’ I nod toward the thick pile of paper he’s holding. ‘Whaddya think?’
‘Hmmmm,’ he says, then pauses, “So… a Joel O’Brien called the police on you? “
My mouth falls open. “That’s not right! Is he here? If he says he didn’t call the police on you, the police report is wrong and they can’t really carry a case against you.”
He nods. “I think he left. But, he’ll probably come back.” He pauses to shuffle through my thick deck of crime and punishment. I’m still reeling from the thought—-Joel called the cops?
He stops reading, looks up. “Woah. This all began in 1982?!”
I stare past him. “Umm, it actually began in 1973.”
Grimly, he does what all rule-bound men do in times of great confusion, he reshuffles the stack of papers on his lap. Laboriously, page by page he dissects my rap sheet, until the resolve of his official examination becomes as unmoored as a toy balloon caught in an updraft.
“Don’t bother.” I say, nodding toward the file. “It’s not in there.”
What I don’t say: it’s here. In my heart, where the pain still lives.
“Want a beer?”- The rapist-
Prep school. Everyone in my socio-economic stratosphere was shipped out of our blue collar town after 9th grade, the last grade available in Fitchburg’s only private day school. To me, and most of my fourteen and fifteen-year-old, socio-economic peers, it’s the developmental equivalent of teaching a kid how to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool. Even though New England’s prep schools are like adolescent daycare, going meant leaving home for good—an unspoken truth of growing up in New England’s ruling class. Everyone went—smart, dumb, pretty, plain—–it didn’t matter; there was a prep school waiting for you and your parent’s tuition check. Like a cultured variation of juvenile detention, preppies found ways to make it have the fun adolescent chaos is supposed to have, but no one I know in my family will deny it basically sucked. I now see being packed-off to prep school as the ruling class version of ‘going street’.
I was shipped out to Dana Hall, an all-girls school in Wellesley,Massachusetts, located on an exorbitant and languid piece of suburban real estate about fifteen minutes out of Boston. My sister Sally had just graduated. To me, she has always been a role model of enviable normalcy. She does her work, affablely. Not brilliant, in the Beautiful Mind kind of way; but far from dumb. That was the clientele Dana Hall was designed for, women far more willing than I was, or ever will be, to live happily normal lives with a successful man and raise great children. Sally seemed authentically happy being there.
I signed up.
The only class I really remember was called: Math 3 Slow, before the politically correct manners rolled in. For the record: I smoked pot. I dropped acid twice in Dana Hall’s comfortably worn dormitories. File it under youthful experimentation. I’m very sure if what happened in my seventeenth summer hadn’t happened, the alcoholism Beast would have remained a well-behaved old mutt, and all my toking and tripping and tipsying would have remained stuck in time, a prep school girl’s pleasantly distractive rite of passage, not a viciously destructive addiction.
Cigarettes, alcohol, and heroin excluded, under the right circumstances, ‘experimenting’ with drugs for us baby boomers was about transitional readjustment, our privileged imitation of the Native American practice of a vision quest, sending adolescent boys off into the woods or desert to eat psilocybin and become men through a spiritual epiphany. When I got stoned, I giggled at the macro-world, unfettered in my micro-universe. My thoughts became circular, eccentric, and lucidly Technocolored. I hallucinated, and experienced hyper-realization. I drew, wrote, danced, and listened to music. I’m not suggesting that piling on mind and mood altering drugs is a sure path to wisdom and insight, but I do think a phase of dabbling can enhance our epiphanies. Long afternoons riding bikes, sitting in tree limbs, exploring ponds, inventing goofy games, studying library shelves—-stoned—helped me peel back the onion, drop the neurotic cacophony of learned self-image and simply be myself. Stoned was also an escape; at the core of things Dana Hall wasn’t much more than an expensive, but monochromatically bland high school. Much of what it taught me I’ve discarded.
I do, however, vividly remember the weekend that changed everything.
‘So, like, come to my house on Nantucket for the weekend …. ‘
Maggie stuck her head into my little dormitory single. Living roommate-free is a prep school perk as rare as it is in prison. In prep school, it’s by lottery. In prison, no fucking way.
I glance up, probably from drawing, or reading. Definitely not from studying for a Math 3 Slow quiz.
‘Really?” I grin. ‘Nantucket? Cool.’
Weekends were a controlled substance in my prep school era. You received a limited amount that expanded with seniority. Therefore, they weren’t to be wasted on minor impulses. Nantucket, her rich parents’ summer house, a small collection of my buddies? That was definitely worth spending a weekend on.
We boarded the Nobska, the quaintly anachronistic Nantucket ferry. It had once actually run on steam, and had traveler-scarred, mahogany benches, and an earsplitting brass foghorn that ricocheted off the placid harbor waters as we churned away from the Woods Hole dock. My Dana girls hung together. As usual, I wandered alone, and explored, like a cat discovering a new house.
‘Hi.’ A deep voice behind me. I turned, fell into the deep azure eyes of a black-haired man’s youthful, ruddy face. He was grinning, as if just beyond the edges of small-talk lurked a rollicking, mysterious punch-line.
‘Hi?’ I said back, in that shyly lilting, questioning way young girls have always responded.
I don’t remember the details of our conversation. The random encounter that irreparably scarred my life no doubt began with casual banter. A flirt. A joke. His dancing eyes. At second glance, he was older. But I was charmed, and unafraid. ‘Want a beer?’ He asked.
Said the spider to the fly…
Looking back at the face that will forever live vividly in my brain, I’d guess he was barely thirty. Even a seventeen year old in 1973, long before we had the gift of any cautionary hindsight, knew a thirty year old doesn’t…shouldn’t…offer her alcohol.
My next question was practical, a gift of my dormant Scottish thrift, but also titillated by forbidden fruit. These were the days before teenagers grew brazen enough to flash Photoshopped ID cards.
‘Do you have to buy it?’ I asked.
“I do.” He grinned, and walked over to the lunch counter.
I wandered to a nearby table, a kind of nautical breakfast nook with wooden bench seats, and sat down, watching the man rummage around in his pockets for a few bills. He returned carrying two large plastic cups, brimmed with sudsy foam and icy sweat. He was smiling. The cups had blue lettering, and a jolly doodle of the ship taking us to sea. Freeze frame. A stranger is carrying drinks. A girl is waiting. Beyond the thick glass window, a warm, moonless night hangs like black velvet over the gentle surge of a silent sea.
I was unafraid, and the beer tickled my tongue. The night was a song only I knew the words to. Somewhere, across the narrow breadth of the plodding, iron ship, the Dana girls were probably wondering where I’d disappeared.
I wasn’t raped because of the beer. I wasn’t drunk, but I could have been. I’ve certainly had sex with many people I wouldn’t have had sex with sober. No, I was born with a damaged fight or flight instinct. I followed the blue-eyed monster to see what a private stateroom looked like. I believed he appreciated my curiosity and was happy to show me his ship. I didn’t walk to that tiny sitting room, with its rickety set of table, chairs, and sagging divan, feeling sexy or ready for physical intimacy with a stranger. I was a virgin. I had a completely differently dream that the first time would be making love, without a knife to my throat. He hadn’t made any sort of overt suggestion of a sexual motive. His looming rape was carefully orchestrated. Why ruin his chances by intimidating a seventeen year old? Even one born with a smaller-than-average brain quadrant to control defiance, mischievousness and reckless abandon. When I was a child, I ran with the wolves and suckled on tiger’s milk. What harm could a blue-eyed rogue offering gifts and gab possibly do? Why hesitate when he says, ‘Hey, want to see one of the boat’s staterooms?’ when the rest of the story is so brutally commonplace it seems barely worth mentioning. What was so special about me, a girl at seventeen, footloose and attractive, well-heeled, smart, and fearlessly curious? Who’s really to blame? I chatted with a stranger, accepted an underage drink, flirted, and felt the warm blush of coy sexuality high on my cheeks. And worst of all, I told no one. About the man, his knife at my throat, or the rape. The next day, someone took my picture. I am running at full speed on a pristine Nantucket beach, entirely airborne. Half of me is facing the ocean. Half is running away from it. Always my damned duality. I am running and flying, barefoot in blue jeans and a loose, long sleeved shirt. I can still taste what still hasn’t coalesced into the cool file cabinets of distant memory. It’s as if the blood hasn’t yet dried, yet no one can see it. The old Nantucket steamer is now scrap-ironed into the dust of maritime history. If only my memory could be scrap-ironed that easily, by muscled men with sledgehammers and cutting torches. If only my pain was like a piece of rusted steel, something that could be ground down, melted, painted over. My friend took the picture to capture what she assumed was frothy, springtime glee. I didn’t, couldn’t, tell her. Denial, a river in Egypt. It’s part of my training. My mother’s daughter holds her exquisite agony inside for as long as possible, like a deep diver swimming down, down, holding her breath as long as she can without actually drowning.
“Ego is nothing but dangerous”- Richard Dreyfuss-
My court-appointed counsel, Attorney ‘Birkenstock’, dangles the documents in front of my face. I peer at them and notice a date, 1982, and those now familiar words, Operating Under The Influence.
“Judges don’t like it when they see this as something that has lasted for years.” He cautions. “Is there anything about this that can make it seem part of a traumatic event?” I wonder if Attorney Birkenstock has been talking to my previous lawyer, or if they just hold the dream that finally, a judge will call what I’ve done a ‘justifiable act of madness’.
“Will it help that 1982 was a huge wake-up call that inspired one of my life’s most productive stages ever?” He blinks at me, uncomprehending. Nobody ever said you have to be people-smart to get through law school, or possess a working appreciation for the comic absurdity of the human condition.
“If Joel shows up to say he called the police on you, you’ll be alright. For now. I’ve got to go make some calls.” Lawyer-talk for ‘You’re up shit’s creek. I’m going to lunch.’
“C’mon Ross, we’ve got to put you back in lock up” court officer Gary gestures for me to follow. We pass an unlocked door.
“God, I’d love to just step outside for a minute,” I say, convinced I’m about to emotionally rupture under this brash, fluorescent lighting. He glances furtively over his shoulder. “C’mon.” Shoving the heavy door open, he leads me out onto the back steps overlooking the parking lot, launches into his judicial forecast.
“You don’t have the best lawyer or the easiest judge, but you’re going to be alright. This court is getting really sick of that little bastard Dumas tossing everyone in jail for anything he can come up with, and the cops are always screwing up arrests.”
I listen intently. This is good material. It doesn’t take long to learn that the omnipresent sages of the court system are clerks and court officers. They know everything and everybody. I am standing with my eyes closed and my face tilted to the weak, November sun, trying not to want a cigarette.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Gary asks, “How old are you?”
My eyes still shut, I tell him, “My soon to be lost forever driver’s license says I’m forty eight. At the moment? I’m stuck on seventeen.”
“C’mon Ross, I have to lock you up.” Gary has clearly had his fill of watching women lose it in the courthouse bowels.
During my seventeenth summer, and for decades after, I never told a soul about my rape. But I was privately processing the trauma, terror, and shame attached to what so many young girls accept as a normal rite of sexual passage. I went from being an openly smart and happy ADD teenager to a subliminally fearful and insecure PTSD teenager. Dropping out of prep school, I got my General Equivalency Diploma and moved to Martha’s Vineyard. I was on a high octane trajectory to forget and move on. Every bit of what happened went into the psychic bin labeled-BAD SHIT, HEALING FROM. It seemed to be working. I moved into an apartment on top of the Edgartown post office with three boys roughly my own age, all members of the same Peter Pan/Dharma Bum club who were New Jersey pals aspiring to be jazz musicians.
Our life together was jovial, supportive, and sweetly kindred. There was no sex—except when one of their girlfriends showed up for an occasional overnight. We drank beer to quench a summer’s thirst, not to self medicate, and rarely set the dinner table. In our various ways, we were all slightly addled. We began a game to see if we could read every book of every author we collectively chose. We went from Jack Kerouac to Anthony Burgess, to Berthold Brecht to James Joyce (well, we made it through Ulysses), to Dylan Thomas to Kurt Vonnegut.
At winter’s end, I went looking for a job. A fresh notice tacked onto a bulletin board announced, House Cleaner Wanted Immediately. I called a number, (remember pay phones?) and was summoned to a modest, clapboarded bungalow perched atop a modest island hillock. It looked nothing like the upper income, grey-shingled island home I’d mentally constructed. Wandering into the murky gloom, I called out. ‘Hello…?’ The vestibule opened up into a modest ski-lodge style great room, with a stone fireplace and knotty pine paneling. A voice from the kitchen called back, ‘We’re in here…’
Three men were sitting around a table in a kitchen lifted from a time capsule. I could imagine Lucille Ball bending to slide a devil’s food cake out of the retro shit-brown oven before Ricky Ricardo came home late from the Copacabana. I smiled at the trio, assumed they were golfers or sailors or off-season visitors briefly liberated from their out-shopping wives.
Steven Spielberg, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider smiled back at me.
Could I start tomorrow? Steven asked. He was in town that summer to direct his first ‘big time’ film, a fish-bites-man horror flick called Jaws. He’d cast Richard Dreyfuss as the nebish marine biologist. Roy Scheider was, well, Roy Scheider, and of course played the tourist town chief of police bucking the small town myopia of ‘Shark? What shark? Shhh…don’t tell the tourists’. All three were poised on the dizzying precipice of superstardom and none of us knew it.
For now, they simply needed someone to make the beds and clean the toilets.
Richard says I was hired because I looked a little and acted a lot like a young version of Katherine Hepburn. We were all young. I was in recovery for the first time and didn’t know that either. Richard was a young Jewish actor on the verge of being confounded by fame, easy sex, and large amounts of adult substances. Roy Scheider was an actor’s actor; an unflappable, career-steady, nice guy who taught me the Canadian Mounties work-out and never once seemed any different than the character he played in the film: A good-hearted guy who says things like: ‘Then why don’t we have one more drink and go down and cut that shark open?’
I’d start my work day by first raiding the refrigerator. Their other domestic hire was a great New England-style cook who was fond of making things like cheesecake, potato salad, cranberry-pumpkin muffins with a side-stash of unsalted butter, and roast turkey. The stuff any all-American teenager who had been living on salted peanuts and coffee could easily consume in large quantity at any time of day. In the living room Steven had installed a large, futuristic device, the size and shape of a phone booth, with a miniature television screen. It was called Pong, the world’s first video game, which kept me enthralled for hours, instead of dusting and vacuuming. In the age of Iphones and wafer-thin computers, I would love to see my son’s response to this quaint, Rube Goldberg toy. It would likely be the equivalent of how us baby boomers reacted when our parents’ generation gleefully showed us how to make ice cream with a bucket and a crank—stupid!
Spielberg loved gadgets. Some days, when it was classic New England spring seacoast weather—foggy, wet and chilly, I’d take advantage of his traveling whirlpool bath. It was a lawnmower-engine-sized machine that you plopped into the tub, and seemed vaguely dangerous to use, but I did. Doing so motivated me to clean out his bathtub with the fervor that comes from hiding the evidence. Then I’d clean the rest of the house. Sort of.
My laissez faire job commitment exemplified a bumper sticker I once saw: Artists make lousy slaves. In my case it could have been Traumatized Rape Victims Make Lousy Cleaning Women.
But there was a higher power in play. Within about two weeks, Richard and I became lovers. Despite the fact that his motivation was boredom, not love, he taught me that the term ‘making love’ has a lot to do with putting in the time and attention to your lover’s satisfaction. He is also a smart, sweet man who was ultimately more interested in brain, not the legions of buttocks and boobs that began throwing themselves at him.
My dog Bill had a habit of jumping up onto the low roof over the restaurant of the hotel where Richard spent the next four months. He liked his privacy, eschewing the boy’s bunkroom atmosphere of Steven’s rented bungalow. The hotel had a no-pets policy, so Bill crawled into the window of the room, while I came up the stairs. One day, I found Richard and some chick on their knees looking for her….something…wallet? undies?….that had clearly been kicked away during some amorous flailing. It was a classic sit-com moment, with no laugh track. I stared down at them. The bed was a tousled mess. Richard leap to his feet with awkward apologies…’uh…hi Pip….’ ricocheting off my stunned silence. There was nothing left to say; just another version of another long-ago Joel saying “I can’t be your boyfriend; you’re in sixth grade, I’m in ninth.”
I closed the door behind me and walked slowly down the stairs.
It was a time and a place where a young woman with a dog could safely wander. I steered us, dented heart and faithful dog, towards the ocean. To hell with libidinous, self-centered actors. I was learning fast how to keep my own peace.
We hitchhiked, Bill and I, on down the yellow brick road. Martha’s Vineyard in the seventies was a paradise embraced by casual, hippy-tainted conviviality. Within minutes we were picked up by a guy named Peter. Seeing my obvious distress, within a few more minutes he asked ‘Do you want to stay at my house for a while?’
‘Okay,’ I said. Somehow, I knew he was safe. Unlike the Nobska rapist, I recognized him as one of my tribe. Of course, the inevitable, gently persuasive proposition for coital congress emerged, but I wasn’t ready. ‘No thanks,’ I told him.
‘Okay.’ He shrugged, ‘Want to help me make a cassette?’
Peter Simon was another kid, like me, born of the once ruling, but now dead or destitute, class. His father was the curmudgeonly Simon of the Simon and Schuster empire, his mother a smart, no-nonsense doyenne. His sister Carly was an emerging superstar songbird. He disc-jockeyed, photographed, and networked. Another thing we both shared: a crash course with the sleeping beast of genetically assisted alcoholism.
One day, Peter and I went over to Carly and James’s house to do what we do a lot of when young and dreaming—- ‘hang-out’. I instantly nicknamed Carly the ‘Stallionorita’. Her long legs, giant mouth and testy domination made me think, ‘no, actually—you’re so vain…’ To my eighteen-year-old impoverished delight, she generously dumped a huge load of her clothes onto her bed for me to ‘take what you want…’ As I began to plow and harvest the fine crop of the famous rich ‘n tall, she popped her head through the bedroom door and breezily announced: “Know what? I really should keep this stuff. I love to give things away, but I’ve got to learn to stop. Some of these things I’ve barely worn.”
I wandered outside to sit by their swimming pool. A tall, lean man with dark hair and a mustache wandering out of the woods, who I recognized instantly as James Taylor. I’d memorized pretty much every lyric he’d ever written, but knew nothing about him. The first rock concert I ever went to was to see him and Carole King play at the Fitchburg Massachusetts Civic Center. I was thirteen and the joint was only about half full.
I watch, fascinated, as James walked to the side of the pool and, fully clothed, lowered himself in up to his neck. After a while he put his face down into the water, as if he was snorkeling. A minute, then two, ticked by. I begin to seriously worry; my internal clock is gasping for the air he hadn’t come up for. ‘Fuck it’, I thought. ‘I don’t care if I come across like an obsessed fan, I’m going in to check on that guy.’ Hopping in the pool I say to his floating, soggy back, “Uh…James?’ Just as I reach for his arm, he pops out of the water, coughing, and stares at his scared-looking, teenage lifeguard. The drowned man speaks: ‘Whoa…..uh, thanks. I’m a little, uh, y’know…’ He gives me a goofy, conspiratorial smile. ‘Don’t mention this to Carly and Peter, okay?’ I quickly nod. Even before I become a member of the vast keep-getting-high-a-secret club, I immediately understand his request. The real irony: Decades later, when I was a card-carrying drunk, a clean and sober James Taylor lived a couple of miles away from me in the Berkshires where I had ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go on the journey my alcoholism took me.
Back to tony Edgartown, Bill and I bump into Richard. “Oh my God—I was so worried about you…” He gushes. He apologizes. I listen. Our talk wanders from bruised hearts to popular culture, meaning, naturally, the movies. ‘American Graffitti just changed everything. It’s like I’m being edified over doing something that’s not altering significant, cultural events—it’s a damn goofy movie.’
I shook my head. “It makes people happy, idiot. It glorifies the fifties, an era that’s been eviscerated by the arrival of make-love-not-war, civil rights, and hippies like me who aren’t really doing much of anything.”
The subject turns to fame. He offers his lovable crooked smile with an avuncular nod that says, ‘Are you done being funny? I mean this, so listen….’
“I’m a short, sometimes fat, Jewish boy. I’ve been laid, but it’s never been like this―with women, all kinds of women, handing themselves over.”
“Is it, you know, fun with those real, live grown-up women?” I ask.
“It’s interesting. It’s not bad….but I’ll tell you what, when you grow up a little more and I don’t feel inappropriate with you and your little girl body…you are going to be one amazing woman. You are already are an amazing woman. These other women who have to be somebody by fucking someone they consider a life altering prize…that’s a person of very low self-esteem.”
I shrug. “Can I have some money to buy dinner?” He hands me a ten-dollar bill. In 1974, that was enough for me to buy a large bag of Kibble and two blue plate specials at the Oak Bluffs Diner.
Watching the making of Jaws taught me the 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration equation of creativity.
“He’s a goddamn idiot.” I heard Spielberg mutter one day, referring to the location scout who’d picked Martha’s Vineyard to shoot a potential blockbuster. Anyone who has lived, or visited longer than a day, knows the New England coast gets a pea soup, sock ‘n lock more days per year than just about anywhere on the planet. Shooting was waylaid, delayed, and resulted in hours of poker played with the $125 a day ‘expense money’ by the unionized film crew who had nothing to do but wait. It offered another life lesson: I’m too dyslexic for cards, especially Five Card Stud, the Texas Hold ‘Em of the 70’s.
The movie groaned under monumental technical glitches. Whoever designed the three hydraulic sharks for the role of the Great White, Bruce, was another ‘goddamn idiot’. Watching from the beach as an extra, along with scores of per diem hired islanders, I witness the sharks pop upright out of water like flipper, roll over, belly-up, and smash into things like underwater camera men, again and again, forcing everything to be put on hold until the mechanical choreography was resolved.
Somehow Spielberg survived his cinematic trial by fish with brains, artistry, and plucky determination, a fledgling career nearly torpedoed by bad weather, bad sharks, and a bad case of over-budget. Richard had his own share of rogue sharks, as ego attacks bolstered by a hit film and idol-worshipping women pea soup his sunny disposition. But it was filmmaking, the awesome social power of high-tech story-telling, that most amazed me. I saw the completed movie and was scared witless, along with everyone else in a crowded New York theater when a dog named Pippin wanders into the surf and gets eaten, in a salty roil of crimson gore, by the indefatigable killing machine.
My fifteen seconds of fame, I guess.
By fall I’d had enough of the Vineyard’s eternal battle between blue collar and blue blood.
“Ready to join the world, kiddo?” asks my avuncular paramour, Ricky D. when I announce, “I’m off this rock.” We hug. Little does he know how much he’d rescued me with love from rape.
How I spent my summer vacation.
“You got great talent, Hon. Now stick out your bum a bit more.”
-The hairstylist of Lexington Avenue-
“I stole a bike fer chrissakes! I have to go to jail for stealing a fucking bike!?”
CO Gary is locking a twenty-something guy into the men’s holding pen beside me. We’re segregated inside, even though men and women can all see, smell, and hear each other. I have my standards; I don’t like people who steal bikes; hurt women, children or animals; pollute; or steal from someone poorer than they are. Criminals have the same social systems as everyone else. Judgments are made; friends and enemies are picked; Tribes and sects form based on a sense of superiority and purpose.
“Have you dumped your teenage years?” CO Gary says, handing me a sandwich and a bag of chips from the local sub shop. In this moment, it’s one of the most wonderful feasts I’ve ever eaten.
“I’m thinking about how pissed I was when someone stole my bike when I was about eighteen living in Manhattan.”
C.O. Gary shakes his head and walks away.
At eighteen, after the summer of Jaws, my dreams are impressive. Artist, filmmaker, writer, dancer, editor, animator. Moving from the Vineyard to Manhattan, my urban life begins. I take care of a wonderful elder four nights a week for pay and a big bedroom. I stay on the floors and couches of various friends and acquaintances in between. I take dance and movement classes at the Alvin Ailey School and The American Mime Theater. A nod to my three Hollywood musketeers leads me to The Actors Studio, where Brando and Marilyn Monroe studied Stanislavsky method acting. I draw and model at the Art Students’ League. I learn how to edit video from an independent producer. My boyfriend’s grandmother, an IBM heiress, doles out rehearsal passes to the Metropolitan Opera and The New York City Ballet. A friend works at the Paris Review, a dense literary quarterly launched by George Plimpton, a journalistic everyman who wrote fantasy bestsellers about throwing major league fastballs and getting clobbered by NFL linemen. I receive invites to George’s famously eclectic salon parties. At one of them, the iconic novelist Norman Mailer gets drunk and ornery and tries to pick a fight with Mohammed Ali. Ali, an amused gentle giant, played along, then suddenly grabs Mailer, bends him over backwards and kisses him on the lips, with the visual passion of the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse on V-J Day in Times Square. It’s a priceless New York moment. My best friend Olga is dating Arnold Schwarzenegger, another not-yet-fully-famous I get to sleep with. I mean sleep. One night, we all get extremely drunk and conk-out on Olga’s bed. Waking up in the morning I discover that one of the future governor of Cally-fawn-ey-uh’s pectoral muscles is nearly twice as large as one of my ass cheeks.
Life was fun, funny, and full.
Then my bike got stolen.
It was a great job: Bike messenger for Manhattan’s independent movie industry, delivering film canisters all over town. Except for the noxious symptom of ‘diesel lung’, my days were filled with the excitement of negotiating Manhattan traffic and the promise of meeting creative people who inevitably ask, ‘Want to come in and see how we do it?’
The theft was a cruel epiphany. It was my autonomy, my mobility, and my only possession of real value. Its loss no doubt helped pulled the scab off my seventeen year old rape wound.
Not rich enough to replace my work wheels, I found a new job at an upscale, upper East Side hair salon. I was hired to do what quickly seemed comparable to wiping a grown man’s bottom. Men in spotless three-piece suits wearing dirty toupees would arrive for their appointment looking sheepish and dour. My job was to comfort them as I snipped off the toupees sewn to tufts of their remaining hair. After handing over their grungy human-hair pad to the person who dry-cleans the furry yarmulke, I wash their heads. Having worn the toupee for a month, their scalps look and smell like they’d dipped into a vat of rotten cottage cheese. When their freshly laundered wig returns fresh and shiny, I carefully sew it, tuft by laborious tuft, back onto their heads. Needless to say, taking these men through the removal of what is to them, their youth and beauty; cleaning-up their Gouda- cheese-scented scalp-skank; and returning them to a refreshed self-image generates mighty good tips. Helpful, but not good enough.
“Are you going to pay me?” I kept asking the upscale, grease-ball shop-owner. “I’ve been here for a month. I need to be paid.”
“Oh sure Hon. But first, do me and my friend a favor. We need to get some pictures for a hair, make-up, and clothes line we’re trying to develop. Will you be our model?”
The proposal seemed like an opportunity. I could recycle the pictures as head shots that I’d need for auditions.
“Here Hon, put on this outfit,” He hands me a yellow silk, button-down blouse and a pair of patent leather black stilettos. I pause, waiting for the pants or skirt before heading to the bathroom when I get the sign I ignore. “Hon, just put it on here. We have to set up the camera.”
“No skirt? Pants?”
“Naw, it’s a, um, head shot, but take your jeans off so they don’t bunch up your shirt.”
Once again, the behavioral void where normal people’s fight or flight instinct lives took over. I took off my clothes and put on his costumes. It seemed real. Studio style lighting, a good camera, directorial prompts. It’s fun. I get to exercise my fledgling actress.
“Pull off your underwear, Hon…”
“No bra and panties and we can really show your dancer’s muscles. It’s art, Hon, don’t worry about it.”
Eager to display my professional ability to take direction, I slide out of my underwear. A wine bottle is popped. All inhibitions are out the window, so, at their urging, I offer up more risqué poses. Not Penthouse crass, more like vintage Playboy innocent, my mind groggily justifies.
The next day, I walk into the office to ask, one more time, when I’ll be paid. Nobody home. On his desk are a stack of photographs; graphic close-ups of my ass and pussy. Not a single shot of my face, a shirt, or a leg. On the desk is a night deposit bag. Furious, I scoop up my pictures and the bag, hustle out the door and sprint down the stairwell to avoid the elevator. Hitting Lexington Ave., expecting the accusing scream of sirens over my shoulder, I run and run and run, finally stopping to tear up the pictures and throw them in a trash can. He knows nothing about me beyond my name! He tricked me! It took me hours of attacking the bag with knives and scissors to find the $1, 638.00 inside. Nearly forty years later, I’ll never walk down Lexington Avenue again.
My Paris Review friend tells me I can go talk to Mr. Plimpton about maybe doing some work there. I am invited to stop by his apartment in the evening. His wife greets me and shows me into what I assume is his office. She leaves and shuts the door behind me in what feels more like a bedroom suite of deep oriental rugs and book shelves. Out of the bathroom emerges Mr. Plimpton wearing a silk bathrobe. I don’t remember anything that was said. We talk for not much more than a minute when he unties his robe, exposes his chest and penis and coyly inquires, ‘Are you interested?’
I get up and leave with the incredible urge to ask his wife, ‘Do you know you’re pimping for a letch?’ Out on the street, with about sixty blocks to hoof home, a standard, Manhattan style nutcase approaches me and launches into his mad, soapbox diatribe: ‘You wanna know what the fuck is wrong with you and everyone running this country right now? You’re all Satan’s fucking allies….’ I look at him and trump him with raging, contorting, screaming lunatic rant as pure as my inner madwoman can be. He stops his hysterical screed, mid-drool, freezes, turns, and runs.
The next night, I go to a party, get drunk and go upstairs to have sex with a stranger, breaking my poor boyfriend’s heart. I don’t really care.
And the beat goes on.
Within a week, I get another job as a live-in housekeeper-kid sitter in a swank upper West Side apartment of a forty-something man and his teenage daughter. The first night, awakened by the powerful scent of roses, I see my employer, standing over my bed, naked, clutching a huge bouquet of roses, his erect penis within inches of my face. The next morning, I leave Manhattan for good.
“This is a felony, but we’ll ignore it this time…”
-Registrar of Hampshire County Department of Motor Vehicles-
“Hey! Officer Gary! What time is it?” I bark like a caged mutt. In a few minutes he wanders to my pen with some verbal kibble.
“You’ve got another hour until the judge goes back in session.” He says. “You’ll get out. You can get a good lawyer. Then you can tell the story that your asshole boyfriend dropped a dime because he was pissed off at you.”
“Being an alcoholic is like carrying a genetic time-bomb that needs only an emotional trigger to blow,” I tell him. “Only problem is that my ego keeps blocking the view.”
“Jesus Ross, you’re coming across like you’re high right now. Don’t pull this shit in the courtroom—you’ll definitely be looked at as a threat to public safety.” I watch him walk away with another ‘welcome to the monkey house’ head shake.
After Manhattan, I move to what’s known as the ‘Happy Valley’, the Western Massachusetts flatlands where the Connecticut river flows, softly corseted by green undulating hills. It’s deeply agrarian roots are wonderfully jazzed by the intellectual fuel of Amherst, Smith, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke colleges, and the University of Massachusetts. To satisfy my creative wanderlust, I stumble upon radio, which is really theater without makeup or costumes. I become a disc jockey in the wonderful days when you could actually create a musical ‘set’, segueing one song to another with few commercial interruptions. I especially adored the part where I could talk to a lot of people, say almost anything I wanted excluding the seven deadly words made famous by George Carlin—-shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits—with virtual impunity. I quickly graduate to the world of on-air news at WMAS, in Springfield, a two-hour commute for a two-hour gig. I attend the cheap, pay-as-you-go University of Massachusetts, and try out another variation on sobriety—anorexia.
Adopting an eating disorder was door number two on my quest to achieve sobriety. Just like early sobriety, the act of not eating requires a lot of discipline and determination. It gave me back the power and control I’d annexed over to the destructive wiles of men. Like being drunk, or on the ‘pink cloud’ of early sobriety, there’s a physical high attached to not eating. Like being drunk, or sober, my obsessively fasting body survived and adjusted fast. I learned that when I denied my stomach’s food-anticipating growl, it eventually shut-up and satisfied its yearning by gorging on its own fat stash. There’s a light-headed bliss and pride attached to the liberation not needing food brings. I got myself down to ninety seven pounds, living on a couple of rice cakes with a spoonful of peanut butter a day. I didn’t need to lose weight, (I was a normal, healthy 125 pounds); what I needed was the feeling I got: I am in control!
Then, along came cocaine, a drug that prioritizes food lower than cleaning the toilet. You will, it promises. Eventually, but not now.
I want to create a bumper sticker that reads: ‘Hey, don’t blame me, it was the eighties’ After the disco decade whimpered away, cocaine arrived on the scene depicted as innocuous, pharmacological jellybeans passed around in bowls with straws at parties, or the tiny glass vials used as sexual barter trinkets by men. For me, the Pavlovian response to the proffered powder was always, ‘Sure, why not?’
Almost everyone in my age camp—including a district attorney and several cops I regularly tooted with—walked the Alice in Wonderland tightrope of mixing alcohol and cocaine. One pill makes you smaller, one pill makes you tall. Cokeheads who moonlight as drunks, and vice versa, have to develop the skill of an anesthesiologist to keep the patient alive. Too much of this, too little of that, and the trouble begins. Impotence and OUIs are the most insidious side-effects.
I left a disco in 1982, buzzed, not quite ready for prime time, and popped out onto Rt. 9, the shopping center strip that rips a traffic-packed scar through beautiful valley farmland insulated by vibrant stands of maple trees. Within yards of exiting the parking lot, I first swerve to the left to avoid two hitchhikers, and then back to the right to pick them up. A cop, like a shark in the shallows, tracks my moves. The hitchhikers bolt. I am arrested. OUI #1.
In the state police barracks, I’m booked and miraculously allowed to use a private bathroom. Studying the ounce of cocaine I’ve stuffed into my underwear, my addled brain ponders this incredible gift: to destroy the evidence. Want to know just how relentless addiction is? If I had the answer, I’d make millions marketing it to every drunk and druggie who has pulled a comparable act of dim-wittery.
Incredibly, I put the full baggie back into my underwear.
New rules, things change: After bail is paid, I’m told, ‘Ross! you need to have a strip search before you leave. Go in there.’ In a small anteroom, a uniformed female watches intently. I do a strip show just for her. Shirt, bra, shoes, socks. Somehow I manage to politely chit-chat with the matron. Talk local politics. Make her laugh. Anything to delay reaching for my belt. Last ploy—-shyness: “Wow. This is embarrassing.” I tell her.
“Don’t worry about it.” she says, studying my body, “There’s no way anything is stuffed inside pants that tight. Just pull out your pockets, we’ll call it a search.”
Cocaine blues. I sold and snorted the ounce. Moving to Boston, I wind up homeless and repeatedly beaten by a drug-dealing Chilean ‘boyfriend’. All this within a year of my first regrettable inhalation of the potent powder. A drug for which I’ll give one tiny credit with which most addicts concur, it’s easier to give up than any of the others, which I did. But, in reality, drugs are a dalliance, like cheating on your husband; a serious side trip having little to do with the destination. My sweetheart wasn’t the coke. My true love came in a bottle.
As a first offender, I was sent to a sixteen week, two-hour-a-week drunk school. Don’t know what it’s like now, but back then it was as if Rod Serling was narrating a 1950’s public service movie on ‘The Evils of Driving While Intoxicated!!!’ It was the next step up from the cautionary movie all graduating seniors were once shown called The Last Prom. Cracked-up jalopies and dead kids on the highway.
At drunk school, ‘students’ were locked into a worn-out ‘classroom’, shown a grainy, 16 mm reel depicting drunks as lost and evil as nocturnally-driven werewolves. The ‘instructor’ left the room for a cigarette and a jawbone with staff down the hall. Returning just as the take-up reel began clattering, he loudly demoed his weary disgust by saying things like, ‘So, obviously, driving while intoxicated means you don’t care much about anything, do you?” We all nod our heads in agreement, thinking of catching a ride with those still driving to the nearest bar or liquor store.
Rocky Mountain, without the high. Halfway through drunk school, my Colorado big brother sends me an airplane ticket to Denver for a recovery time-out, and to rescue me from my psycho-dealer boyfriend. I leave without telling court. This was the early eighties, when my intoxicated, but driving, mother was still regularly chaperoned home by the police, before Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, (M.A.D.D.) took the lead to force us to see the prolific danger of letting numb, dumb, and chemically unhinged people operate three thousand pound missiles.
Denver is…fine, but not an easily walkable city. I needed a driver’s license. So what to do? Fill out the paperwork saying I’ve never had a license. Take the driver’s test. Get a license. Easy. Colorado’s crystalline sky and more physical then intellectual populace makes me return to the moody climate and intellect of Massachusetts. As my Colorado license expiration looms, I ask my law student boyfriend. ‘What should I do, counselor?’
His advice is dangerously simple. “Keep the lie going. If they catch you, say, ‘Oops! Gee, I thought Colorado was telling me everything on my record was all clear. Doesn’t that make this their fault?’”
I get a Massachusetts license, but when I leave him after falling in love with my future husband, hurt boyfriend calls the Department of Motor Vehicles, forcing me to pay a lawyer $500. We go and have a ‘talk’ with the DMV Registrar. Miraculously, again, the whole thing is shoved under the rug, or into the glove box, or whatever it is they do at registries to look the other way. Are you beginning to see my learning curve? Lie; use lawyers; ignore what makes the messes—–and everything is going to be alright.
“God respects being lawless when needed”
-Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley-
Her little alabaster face, no taller than Sister Theresa’s, calmly gazes up at me.
“I want to get baptized.”
She smiles. “That’s interesting. The class starts tomorrow.” Her porcelain bird’s face grows radiant. “It’s twelve weeks. If you make it, you’ll get baptized by Cardinal O’Malley who’s coming for his annual visit.”
I have no real interest in Catholicism, but can’t help but notice that everything happens for a reason. Not an easy concept to grasp when tossed in prison for a few reasons that go far beyond my need to get sober.
All five of us baptism/confirmation aspirants gather in the ‘little chapel’, a room at the end of one of the ‘Old Admin’s’ long, haunted hallways packed with the lost souls stuffed into America’s first women’s prison. Lizzie Borden, by the way, is not among them. The story that Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks; when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41’, is grossly inaccurate. She was exonerated. It was allegedly a pissed off nephew who did it. She never did time in the country’s first women’s prison. I’d love to hear the little rhyme about me circulating newsrooms: ‘Pippin Ross took a pen, and gave a mittimus to her friend. He scanned and altered and redesigned, ’cause of that, she’s doing time.’
Forgive me Father, I sinned in the very first step of the process—I lied. I’ve already been baptized. I’ve played for the other team, as a Fitchburg WASP. The Catholic forbid encore performances in the salvation department. My first baptism had an odd origin. I was ten. My sister Sally ‘got religion’ and wanted to be confirmed along with all of her thirteen year old anglo-buddies. Problem was, she’d never been baptized. You can’t spiritually evolve until the Adam and Eve slate gets completely cleaned with the spiritual dip. I remember it well. The aptly named Father Goodness did it. He was also the first person to ever pick me up hitchhiking. I can’t help but wonder—was that an act of Christian charity or a dormant pedophile? My favorite part of getting baptized at ten was that I was allowed to pick my godparent’s. The gender-based rule I was told to follow was two women, one man. I picked my Aunt Nancy, my official namesake of the legal name I was given that got snuffed when my oldest brother, Jeff, glanced into my bassinet, took one look at my premature-birth, reddish-purple tone and made his Pippin pronouncement.
Thus began the genesis of my name. Despite the fact he got his arboreal facts skewed–Pippin apples aren’t little and red, but big and green—the name stuck. Because it was a good radio name, I finally had it legally changed. Aunt Nancy took it well, and has diligently written illegible, but loving, one-line scrawls to me since I entered jail. I also pick two people who have forever and always been my favored elders. Liz Courtney is the mother of my childhood buddies, her three daughters and one son. She was a free spirit before hippies morphed from beatniks, who floored me with such radical acts as having a music room in her house with nothing but gigantic KLH speakers and a grand piano. I secretly adored the way she was fed breakfast in bed every morning by her loving—not subjugated—-husband, and how she took me to see the double feature of Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant. My godfather choice was Mac McVikar, a prodigal son of New England’s paper industry before it crashed and burned in the 70’s due to cheap out-sourcing from which the six states have still not recovered. He was an avid sailor of yachts, and ultimately, a remarkable artist. I thought he was unbearably handsome. Fact? He looks like you. Good features with fascinating flaws. Eyes that cast nets and pull me into a trawler of wit and wisdom. Both of you are unintimidating studs to whom I want to give every ounce of exactly who I am. Smoothly witty and captivating, while still soft and available. I once told him, ‘If you weren’t so much older, I’d want you as my husband, not my godfather.” Mac lost two consecutive wives to alcoholism. Having dedicated forty seven years to women who dedicated themselves to our drug, my godfather, now with the angels, paid for my first rehab with a loving caveat. ‘Don’t be the 3rd woman I love who dies from this.”
It’s a promise I will never break.
Once I passed God’s lie detector test, which I suspect good sister Maureen knows I flunked due to her heavenly radar, we got down to work on learning the Seven Sacraments. A tutorial in why we are how we are, and how to manage the fights between the devil and angel that we all know reside on our left and right shoulder because we learned that growing up on Loonie Tunes cartoons. Our instructors in the religion quiz were Carlos and Tom, two seminarians from the nearby priest boot camp. Carlos is a spunky little Hispanic probably born, like me, too early. Tom is tall and angelic, a central casting priest with a warm, godly familiarity. It took me about ten minutes to commit to the fact that I was doing this, therefore I had to do it right, which for a reporter, requires many questions. They didn’t sugarcoat their answers. No mushy ga-ga. No authoritarian mandate. The reason I don’t like Catholicism is that it’s got far too much guilt-imposing power over gullible believers. Then, of course, there’s the pedophilia thing. Out of all the religious events I’ve ever attended, it is also seemed to be nothing but white men with upside down trash baskets on their heads saying things to me to which I’m expected to say ‘Amen’ despite the fact I’ve not a clue what they’re talking about, or I completely disagree.
‘Why does Catholicism put a heavy emphasis on guilt?”
Carlos leaps onto that one like he’s Ricky Ricardo and I’m the ditzy Lucy: ‘I think you’re missing the point, Pippin. The point is to not have guilt. The truth is that as hard as we try, we’re always guilty of doing something wrong. The really cool part? Divine exoneration. You get to confess. The point of confessing is that you get to walk away—guilt free!’
Wait a minute. Is this why A.A. meetings are always in church basements? Confess and that’s that? Free and clear? Does this suggest then, that confession and forgiveness is what getting to heaven really is about? No wonder court is hell! Confess and you go to jail.
The twelve week course lays out a simple narrative: life (often and in unexpected ways) sucks, then you die. Therefore, the best way to live it is exactly how Jesus or Buddha, or Jehovah, or Jihad, or whomever you want to deploy as your mentor, do it: Be nice, ask for forgiveness, share, turn your Glock 9s into ploughshares and yes, Dorothy, there is heaven on earth, except in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Makes sense based upon the fact that here I sit in jail over, basically, a hangover, and I’ve never been more focused and accepting. Go figure. Alright, I did chicken out on two questions: What on earth is the rational of celibacy? And, do you see the possible connection between sexual repression and doing altar boys–or is that just something provoked by wearing robes instead of pants? I did ask about the DaVinci Code. They hadn’t seen the movie nor did they plan to read the book, or the next ten sequels. I thought for sure it would be a book being smuggled in and circulated around the seminary, the same way the Framingham profile called A World Apart is smuggled and circulated here.
On baptism day, I am officially nervous. Nervous in my favorite way: Graduation day nervous, opening night nervous, radio deadline nervous. Not the kind of life or death agitation going to court or before the parole board brings. Cardinal Sean O’Malley passes me with his contingent in the hallway. “I know you …. ” He says. That one stops me in my atheist-waning tracks. His Eminence looks like a thinner version of Friar Tuck, who was modeled after John the Baptist. He’s Franciscan, a ‘meek shall inherit the earth’ ascetic who dresses down in earth tones; rope-belted robes, no over the top Vatican-bling. He’s dedicated his career to his flock of jailbirds and homeless shelter habitués. I’m in my whitest, cleanest t-shirt and my best—and only—blue jeans. I picked my official confirmation and baptism name to be Augustine, in honor of your middle name, August, and my grandfather, Augustus. Saint Augustine is a good choice. He stumbled into divine illumination after being a wild drunk.
I am asked to read from the Book of Isaiah, Verse 42. ‘To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house… I have long time held my peace; I have been still, and refrained myself: now will I cry out like a travailing woman.’
There is definitely something going on. First, Cardinal O’Malley has a strange glint. There are a lot of us here, but his eyes kept landing on me. His sermon began with, ‘When I was a kid, I loved radio. I still do, but back then, I was obsessed with listening to the radio.’ He then plunged into the moral of O’Henry’s famous short story, Gift of The Magi, which embodies our struggle with duality: Be ready to give each other whatever it takes to make each other happy, but not quite able to achieve, under the current circumstances, what we want to give each other on a daily basis. Still, frustration notwithstanding, there’s a whole lotta love.
I am then summoned up to the big water bowl. Just when I bend over to be dipped, the sun suddenly pops and pours through a large window to stage left. It is a burst so powerful, a soft gasp goes through the chapel prompting the Cardinal to say softly, “Now there’s a definite sign from God!”
A camera clicked. Next time I go before parole, I think, I’m going to bring the snapshot.
There are several Ross and O’Malley photos from that day. As we pose side by side, I say to him, soto voce, ‘I’m writing a story about all of this. I’d like to come talk to you when I get out.’
He smiles. ‘I know you are. I can tell. Come see me anytime. It’s a good story.’
And so I was baptized. I suppose technically this makes me a Catholic. We’ll see. I can always file an appeal.
Dorothy: [singing] The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch / And suddenly the hinges started to unhitch / Just then the Witch / To satisfy an itch / Went flying on her broomstick, thumbing for a hitch!
-The Wizard of Oz-
Andrea, my prison therapist, says, ‘You seem good’.
Being described as ‘good’ in this place offers a rush probably on par with learning your cancer is in remission. The odds are tough, the prognosis promising. She leans forward. ‘Am I right? Are you good? If I’m wrong, describe, please…’
“I hate to admit it, active system-trasher that I am,” I begin slowly, “but I’m feeling a strong hit of recovery and redemption. I hereby feel corrected.’
Andrea isn’t surprised, despite my authentic lack of usual cynicism. In fact, my eyes well-up with a gush of emotional relief so genuine she bursts into a big smile and lays aside her western psychiatric script to quote Buddha, “Before enlightenment: Chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment: chopping wood and carrying water.”
Framingham’s mental health department is the epicenter of the conflict over how to right us wrong-doers. Do we drug them, or get them to finally feel the edge of prison’s sword? Do we spend money on therapy or let them pound rocks? There is a famous sheriff in Texas who does just that—his inmates live in sweltering army tents and wear pink underwear, like an old Jim Crow chain gang played by the Village People. A growing philosophical fissure exists: How best to handle societal fuck-ups, even if most of them are merely crazy, desperate, or wrongly accused? A hundred years ago, women bunked with their babies. Five hundred years ago they were burned at the stake, because God gave the executioner special dispensation. The undeniable truth is that at Framingham, Howard Street, and Berkshire County House of Corrections, I experienced the most productive soul-searching with in-house therapists than I have anywhere else—-a $20 thousand rehab, and seventy five bucks an hour on a soft couch included.
The help ‘em or hurt ‘em civil war is played out with therapists locking horns with the suits in the front office, or in Framingham’s case, with petty bureaucratic myopia.
‘Let us spend the time to make the women really work on what’s wrong. Lay down the law to stop so many psychotropic drugs being doled out!’ cries the contingent of therapists who invented the nickname ‘chemical restraint’ for all the brain suppressing drugs available to almost anyone who asks. But Framingham’s Bissonette’s comfort zone is budgetary; time and money. Drugs are cheaper than staff, and benzo’s keep the tin cup rattling to a minimum. Attrition among saviors is high. About every six months, I lose another good therapist who’s either walked in frustration or ‘walked-off’ as part of DOC’s ‘down-size’ mandate.
America’s drug war doesn’t end in prison. In the seven thousand degree ‘waiting room’ women in the agitated throes of emotional and physical detox whisper, ‘Just ask for Kolonopin and Seroquill for now, they’ll jack it up to sumpin’ better when you start saying, “Ooooooo,oooooo, it’s not working….”
The benzo-doling psychiatrists are the drug lords, not the therapists. I was repeatedly offered drugs to remedy my jittery, but highly creative oppositional disorder. “You really don’t seem safe….” They’d mutter, in response to my explanation that my angst was no longer due to alcoholism, it was mostly from the system in charge of my punishment for the escape that never crossed my mind.
“You’re a bit more than depressed.”
Speaking of shit, the unexpected high of happiness I’ve achieved while being here reminds me of something Nick did while in his early-stages as a toddler. Many mornings, I’d go into his room to collect him from his crib. The olfactory factory wafting from his doorway made me know exactly what I was about to encounter. He’d be standing in his crib, yakking gobbledy-goop, covered in poop. His hand-eye coordination had matured sufficiently to rip off his shit-stuffed pamper. This evolution could be measured in weeks, like time-lapse photography of a flower blooming. For fun and function, he’d have shit smeared everywhere—body, face, wall, bed. The shit didn’t bother or interest him. His thrill of the moment was to see his mommy. The poop was what it is―a part of life easily washed off.
“What do you think of as central to your sense of what you call ‘redemption and recovery?’” Andrea leans forward.
I stare to a distant corner of the room, my introspective look. It only buys me time, and first choices are rarely the right ones. “It’s like this…I pay very little attention to how and why I feel the way I do. I just do. It’s all about getting very comfortable with how often things don’t go the way I want them to. The more often I think, ‘Oh well’, the more I notice what does go well. It’s acceptance. Case in point: I feel good to be sitting alone in a room with someone who wants to do nothing else but talk about me. What I like best of all is that I’m doing what would easily cost a hundred dollars once a week in the real world. That, and the free calcium prison gives me, make me feel pampered by your tax dollar!”
Andrea stays on point. “What are you accepting?”
Do you ever get that urge with therapists to say, ‘Can you stop asking me these endless fucking questions about how I feel and why?!’
I cradle my forehead in my hands. “Gawd! … Alright, here’s the absolute bottom line of everything that went wrong to get me here.” She looks up expectantly. The patient’s self-revelation, Christmas morning for therapists. So, of course, I milk it.
“Drum roll, please….
I pulled a Dorothy.”
“A Dorothy, y’know, the Wizard of Oz. Her plot line is exactly mine. What Dorothy experienced is how I went in and came back out again.”
Andrea, slightly bemused, adjusts in her chair as though settling in for a bedtime story. “Please….explain.”
When I was about ten, we had a black Labrador named Jenny. She was loving, likable and unbelievably fertile. Three summers in a row, she pumped out a litter of at least ten pure bred pups. Jenny taught the basics of how sex and procreation works. One day, while waiting for her to be impregnated by her stud of the month, my mother and I walked in a field. In response to my question of how exactly this mad humping creates puppies, mom gave me the finest sex talk probably ever delivered. The memorable punch line being: If you love, or at least really like someone, sex is a wonderful and fun experience that includes all sorts of great feelings. In response to my ‘what feelings?’ She explained, in your heart, in your head, and all over your body. Sex has one very special feeling that is all its own called an orgasm. Here she stops and turns to me to say something that clearly comes across as the most important thing she’ll ever tell me: Don’t have sex because you feel like you have to, only have it because you want to. Also, think really carefully about having a baby. My ten-year-old response: ‘Why? Don’t you like having us?’
With Jenny, I watched close-up, birth-pain, dog style. I watched as Jenny ate and licked the placenta detritus from each puppy before getting the next one out. One night, during a wild summer storm, Jenny went missing. I experienced my first spiritual connection, my first real empathetic ‘feeling’. I knew she was giving birth, and had gone away for some privacy. After searching outdoors in the driving rain, I heard the tiny squealing of brand-new puppies. Jenny had gotten herself deeply tangled in the ten foot high, ten foot wide Forsythia bush that girdled our long, country driveway. Two puppies had been squished to death in the stormy birth. How Jenny and eight others survived offered an awesome lesson in nature’s power, including my fierce determination to be their caregiver, to find and transport everyone safely back inside. Jenny also taught me independence. During warm months, when not pregnant or maternally-bound, she’d split. She’d clearly get the urge for going—and strike off down the road. As a preventative measure to ensure her return, she wore a highly detailed I.D. tag. Once we got a call from a guy in New Hampshire, seventy miles away from Fitchburg, Massachusetts. I rarely worried. I was born with the faith that after a good wander, there’s no place like home.
Andrea nods, relieved that I’ve finally made a reference to my promised plot.
“Jenny was killed by a lumber truck.” I explain.
Andrea nods again. In my file, I’m sure she’s profiled me out as a trauma survivor. The death of a cherished family pet is probably a textbook example of a child’s first exposure to the psychic gut-grip of grief.
Therapists love dreams. I tell her one I’ve had recently: Growing up, I lived on a road that peaked at a place called Bingham Lumber, a sawmill that made all sorts of building supplies out of the giant trees lugged up Pearl Hill Road. I’m tied down to a conveyer belt, like a heroine in an old-time silent cliffhanger. I’m headed for one of the mill’s giant saws. Ahead of me on the belt are champagne glasses that shatter upon contact with the massive blade. Around me are sweaty men wearing lumber jackets nonchalantly working. Nobody notices my predicament.
Andrea is bent over her pad, quickly scribbling, like a reporter at a press conference.
“I’m not even close to the finale.” I tell her.
We kept one of Jen’s pups. Because her official name was Lady Guinevere, his official name was Sir Lancelot—I was born in raised in the Camelot era of the Kennedy presidency. Lance was a great dog who was also killed by a lumber truck. What I remember well about that day is that it was the first time I publically snapped. I walked into a 9th grade math class, late from processing my trauma of the morning. The math teacher, who was also the headmaster of my private day school challenged me, “Who do you think you are wandering into school whenever you want?”
“Fuck off !” I screamed back. then burst into tears, “My dog was just killed by a fucking lumber truck!”
Fast forward. 1973. At seventeen I’ve been raped on the ancient Nantucket ferry, the steamship Nobska, which leads to dropping out of prep school. I don’t graduate. In my world, unthinkable. A puppy I name Bill wanders in, stage left. No dog has ever been more extraordinary in his brilliance and allegiance than Bill. His level of wisdom involved skills such as knowing the scent of the dog officer on Martha’s Vineyard, which meant to hide to avoid being impounded. As the companion to a nineteen year old girl who brazenly hitchhiked everywhere, with his size and demeanor he presented an excellent combo of friendly and accessible, but brutally dangerous in a pinch. After having left him behind at my parent’s house for several months in my lackluster and troubled attempt to ‘become something’ at film or theater in New York City, I scoop him up and start a new life as a student at the comfortably rural campus of the University of Massachusetts. One day, I leave Bill with my sister to hitchhike to the campus to sign-up and pay for classes. Yes, there was a time when sign-up and pay for college were both easy and standard operating procedure. Where’s Bill? Was my first question upon my return.
He was gone. For good. I spent hours, days, weeks, months, years looking for him, but sure he was hit by a lumber truck and wandered off to die in the surrounding forest. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a child disappear. I’m sure the only thing that stops you from killing yourself is the chance that they’ll miraculously reappear.
Andrea looks up. Her pen is no longer moving. She’s waiting for the Oz-factor.
“Okay,” I explain, “I call it the Toto syndrome. Dorothy doesn’t lose her dog, but he’s definitely being threatened by a variation of a lumber truck—a witch covering as a librarian. Now there’s a parallel.”
She smiles. “Go on.”
Remember, Oz opens with Dorothy’s dilemma. No one in her family has the time or interest to deal with her harassment by the wicked librarian because Toto ran through, and trampled, part of her garden. To make things worse, Elvira, the ugly witch in library costume, delivers a sheriff’s order to destroy Toto.
These are cinematic versions of my own secrets. I didn’t tell anybody about my Nantucket and Miami rapes—so how could anyone possibly show their care or interest? Like me, Dorothy flips and bolts, and who does she run into? Professor Marvel. What a perfect name for the prototypical drug dealer/liquor store. He makes her feel better. He makes her inspired to try harder, which is what drugs and alcohol do for any true addict in the beginning. It’s inspirational, not remotely destructive. And what does the wizard do? What every drug dealer does; he offers her a first ‘reading’ for free.
The visual of Dorothy passing out in her bedroom while her house spins up into the tornado’s funnel is a brilliant visual display of the rush and escape the first high offers. The rush settles in, the storm is irrelevant, and where is she? A beautiful utopia where she is the tallest, prettiest, smartest, most loved and beautiful witch. Reminds me of the dozens of 2-5 a.m. cocaine and alcohol fueled conversations and sexual forays I’ve had. Who does she ‘hook up’ with? Three perfect examples of the sort of men all women addicts end up with—one with no heart, one with no brain, and one with no courage. En route to the ultimate high allegedly available in ‘Emerald City’ run by the ‘wizard’ kingpin come obvious warnings regularly ignored or shooed away. The wicked witch and her monkeys are another perfect visual of the characters of both addiction and the law. “I’m going to get you and your dog, little pretty!’ She hisses. Damn! There’s even a scene where they all get so high from poppies (duh!) they collapse and get scooped by addiction and cops, I mean, the witch and her monkeys—the most perfect image of what addiction and cops are like—sneaky, determined, scary, and a whole lot of trouble when you finally wake up sober in a cell.
I pause and bring to mind the infamous image of Toto, who, like Bill with the dog catcher, is a sage of a pup to yank back the curtain to expose that the wizard is all show, zero content. He’s the burnt-out district court judge, a pro-bono alcoholic lawyer, a counselor at a detox who gave-up a long time ago, but stays for the state-funded insurance plan. The witch is addiction and the aggressive bad-cop. It’s the moment when Dorothy and her pals all realize this isn’t fun, it’s not the answer, and all they want is for her to go home. The tin man, the scarecrow, and the lion take the role of the addicts who know they won’t quit. They don’t want to—ever. But, they appreciate the fact that she’s actually going to try. The wizard’s acquiescence is visualized by the grand and public offering of the balloon. The Oz version of a judge opting for rehab, not prison; the rare event when the jury finds the drunk driver ‘not guilty’ because of some exceptional lawyering. In Dorothy’s case, like mine, it doesn’t work out. That’s when the ultimate maternal influence, the image of the ‘good’ witch whispering into Dorothy’s ear, ‘click your heels together three times….’ steps forward as the final solution. It’s my dead-from-alcohol mother whispering to me from her death bed—‘please don’t end up like I have.’ Her heel-clicking and repeating ‘there’s no place like home’ is Dorothy’s version of my routines and exercise with the mantra: ‘There’s no place like sober, there’s no place like sober…’
I’ve already given the characters that surround her Kansas bed when she ‘comes to’ the names of my brothers and sisters. When Dorothy spews her dramatic tale, just like my sibs, they nod with a look that says, ‘Uh-huh. Right. Whatever, we still love you and we’re so glad you’re back.”
I look at Andrea. We both start to cry.
“That’s an amazing way to look at it,” she finally says.
There’s more: It’s the Oz plot, along with the drugged, imprisoned, and abused women in Disney stories that are what all women in my age range grew up on as a life philosophy: Escape and wizardry are available. School marms and step- parents are evil. Aspire to Emerald city. Then, there’s the realty behind the fiction. MGM put Judy Garland on amphetamines and barbiturates to keep her going on long days of filming, the 40’s version of prison’s Kolonopin-Seraquil diet. Women of my mother’s generation never spoke about it much when Garland died from drugs and alcohol and left behind a genetic inheritance for her daughter Liza Minnelli to battle. Dorothy wakes up to what I qualify as life’s three options for how to react to anything and everything: If it’s sweet and inspiring, it’s a blessing. If it’s a hard knock, it’s a lesson. If it’s neither, as MGM said, “That’s Entertainment!” It’s material. Nick gave me the visuals seventeen years ago: Though we’re smeared with, and surrounded by shit on a daily basis—that’s life. Smile, be happy. Mommy loves you.
Andrea’s eyes are still moist.
“That’s powerful stuff Pippin. Add the threat against your son’s life and it all makes sense.”
The ceiling speaker blats.
“Ten Minute Movement! Ten Minute Movement!”
I stand to leave.
“Yeah,” I say, “too bad prison doesn’t.”
Pippin Ross has tried many, many times to leave New England – Massachusetts in particular. Every time she leaves, work and/or love invariably bring her back to her root state.
She’s still not done with trying, but very relieved that working for NPR’s environmental program, Living On Earth, and several magazines including SOCO (which stands for South Coast), justifies travel often and far.
That way, returning to New England reminds her that moody weather and intellectually hyper-active people are just what she needs.
January 28, 2011
Riveting acting, brilliant set designs, mood-altering lighting and music, that’s the stuff of great theater. In the play Ruined, currently running at Boston University’s Huntington Theater, it’s also what keeps the audience from having to walk away from one mighty tough plot.
January 21, 2011
Pippin Ross investigates the ongoing appeal of the longest running, non-musical in American theater history.
November 29, 2010
Part 2 – Exploring the Islands off the Coast of Hull, Massachusetts
To my nautical husband’s glee, I was staring out at the Boston Light and said, “Wish we had a boat…”
November 22, 2010
Part 1 – The Hidden Delights of Hull, Massachusetts
It took a few weeks of hot-day summer swims at Massachusetts’ Nantasket Beach before I finally asked, “What is up with this water being so cold?”
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Taking his reform elsewhere
Mass. Corrections Commissioner leaves for Va.
October 12, 2010
Massachusetts Corrections Commissioner Harold Clarke is leaving after just three years on the job to become the director of Virginia’s prison system. The departure was so sudden that it prompted speculation that Clarke’s exit was due to frustration with the slow pace of prison reform on Beacon Hill.
Clarke could not be reached for comment, but a statement he issued on Friday describes his job as Massachusetts corrections commissioner as a “highlight of his career.” He added: “We recognize the importance of preparing the culture within DOC to embrace effective re-entry of offenders back into the community. The administration and I share a passion for robust re-entry initiatives, knowing that properly preparing offenders for re-entry is vital to public safety.”
Clarke came to Massachusetts in 2007 from Washington, where he was secretary of the Department of Corrections. Prior to that, he spent 15 years as director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. He was selected by the Patrick administration because of his track record on creating programs to reintegrate prisoners into society as a strategy to ease overcrowding and recidivism.
An African-American, Clarke is known for regularly interacting with inmates to hear their descriptions of what is right, and especially, what is wrong with prison staff and atmosphere. When installed three years ago, Clarke said, “Prisons must focus on education and rehabilitation. It’s complicated and requires different methods for different offenders.” He crafted a five-year agenda to make prison all about prepping for re-entry into society with a support system in place.
The timing and style with which Clarke’s departure was announced startled many in the State House. Without warning to any Massachusetts officials, Virginia’s Governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, announced the hire last Friday. Brief weekend blurbs in local newspapers were trumped by an open letter written to Clarke by Darrell Jones, a Massachusetts inmate in his 24th year of a life sentence for a murder he insists he didn’t commit. Jones, outspoken about what he describes as correctional officer-imposed “abuse and racism,” posted his letter on The Real Cost of Prisons blog.
The letter is an “insider’s” variation on how many “outsiders” are reacting to Clarke’s departure. “How could you not wait until the governor’s election was over to announce that? Why now?” Jones’s lengthy public letter asks. “Why did you come here and promise reform? Or is this the only state that cannot be reformed?”
Lois Ahern, founder of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, a national organization working on the financial and emotional cost of prisons, was also critical of Clarke. “It’s like a rat jumping a sinking ship,” she says. “It’s about money and moving up the career ladder. It’s nothing a few billion dollars diverted from the state’s prisons to education or actual job creation won’t cure…but then these people would be talking themselves out of jobs.”
But Rep. Ellen Story of Amherst said Clarke was hamstrung from the beginning. “He lacked the resources and the authority he needed to bring authentic reform,” Story says. “The general impression is that MCOFU (Massachusetts’ Correction Officers Federated Union, pronounced Mc-Koo-Fu) and the Legislature are both resisting the work needed to get inmates doing what’s basically a more compassionate and productive version of pounding rocks.”
Just before Clarke’s arrival in 2007, MCOFU signed a new contract with the Patrick administration which, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, makes the union’s members the third-highest paid correctional officers in the nation with a maximum base salary of $60,303.
“That made the union almost invincible,” says Leonard Engel, criminal justice policy attorney and coordinator with the Crime and Justice Institute. “The only staff to cut to save money became the key elements of reform, the people who do the programs, services, and mental health work that get people back on their feet and back into the world rehabilitated.”
Brian Jensen, the president of the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Union, couldn’t be reached for comment, but in an interview with the Boston Herald this month he said: “Inmate suicides and staff assaults have been on the rise.” He blamed reforms begun in 2004 and continued under Clarke. “It’s been on the rise during the current regime and they continued to focus on re-entry and rehabilitation.”
“It’s less the union than it is the Legislature that made the man jump ship,” says Michael D. Cutler, a criminal defense lawyer who works on murder appeals and mental health incarceration cases and who was legal counsel for the DOC in the 1970s. “Like a lot of people, Clarke thought Massachusetts was a progressive state, only to be amazed by the cowardice and inertia the Legislature has to respond to crisis.”
Cutler was referring specifically to the slow dismantling of the Crime Bill that included Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI), and the repeal of the mandatory minimum sentencing law. CORI received minimal changes to how long offender records remain open, and mandatory sentencing wasn’t repealed but altered to only apply to people with two-and-a-half-year sentences in the state’s minimum security Houses of Corrections. It doesn’t apply to the mandatory drug-related sentences that data indicate are the source of prison overcrowding.
“Not only are lawmakers too scared to repeal a law many, many other states successfully have, but they need to ask themselves, ‘When will we pay attention to all of the research and data that shows that what we’re doing in our states’ prisons accomplishes nothing and costs a lot?’” Cutler asked.
A report issued last month by the University of Washington and published by the Pew Foundation says that the United States currently jails one in every 100 adults—the highest rate in the world. Doing so costs $50 billion nationally.
While Clarke’s announcement was a surprise, the departure doesn’t seem to be. “If you are brought in to do reform, you couldn’t have entered a worse environment,” says Engel. “I can’t imagine who will even consider replacing him. Not here. Not now.”
The more delicate response comes from Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, Mary Beth Heffernan, who says, “We look forward to continuing to build on the momentum he started.”
There is no confirmed date on Clarke’s actual departure.
The Great Escape
Yoga and meditation help Pippin Ross escape the hell of America’s oldest prison for women.
“RELEASE YOUR DIABETICS! RELEASE YOUR DIABETICS TO TRAUMA!”
This is prison’s wake-up song—the deafening, metallic squawk of the PA—and, for many women here, it signals a trip to medical for a morning insulin shot. I’m at MCI Framingham, a medium-security prison twenty miles from Boston that’s a catchall for female offenders: homicidal lifers, sex workers ravaged by crack and meth, check-kiting welfare moms, scared high-school kids caught with a joint during a crackdown.
“Court trips! Medical trips! Transfers! Releases to admissions!”
I whisper my day’s mantra: “May I be at peace. May my heart stay open.” I pace my cinderblock ashram, warily eyeing the dreamer in the narrow bottom bunk. She’s my twelfth “roomie” since my arrival two years ago. Unconcerned about her crime, I have few criteria for successful co-habitation: I don’t want her to steal my pens and I want her to be a sound, late sleeper—giving me the relative bliss of an uninterrupted hour of morning yoga and meditation. In a ten-by-ten cell, with a metal sink on one side and a metal desk on the other, the only way to navigate through a sun salutation is to have my roomie’s sleeping body within inches of my face.
In cotton pajama bottoms and Department of Corrections T-shirt, I greet the splash of sunrise spilling through the grated and providentially eastern-facing window. “Breathing in, I vow to speak loving words. Breathing out, I vow to think loving thoughts.”
Cell doors open, and the first wave of human babble breaks over me, the sound of seven hundred angry, depressed, and confused hearts slowly breaking. Ready or not, we’re propelled into the day. A day not much different than the one before—imagine subtle shades of gray, punctuated by achingly brief bursts of color, like fireworks in the fog.
I leave my room. First task: mop and sweep. It’s a prison version of the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.”
“Ross! Report to meds! Now!”
I join a line of women, who on the outside tend toward anorexic-thin from their spartan diet of street drugs and the constant stress of living under the radar, but who are now swelling from inactivity, a diet heavy with refined sugar and white flour, and high daily doses of pharmaceuticals.
“We’d like to put you on trazadone, a heterocyclic antidepressant,” offers a kind and friendly nurse. I suspect this solicitation comes from my involvement in a mental health relaxation group, prison code for the yoga and meditation group I lead. If the lesson of breathing in, breathing out is good, they rationalize, stirring an antidepressant into the mix must be better.
“Thanks,” I say, “but I’d rather cop my serotonin high naturally. You folks should think about offering some herbal teas. Maybe a little St. John’s wort.”
Her response is standard issue in a bureaucracy with all the self-defeating grace and logic of the Department of Motor Vehicles: “Ha! Not in our lifetime!”
<!–“Ten-minute movement! Ten-minute movement!”
From 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., prison days are fragmented into fifty-minute hours, each with a ten-minute finale tacked on to allow for movement.
I enter my steps-to-recovery class.
“We’re going to go deep today,” our teacher says. She’s part of a new wave of outside social-service professionals contracted by the DOC to add a human face to the corrections process. Guards in jackboots can only go so far in rebuilding broken spirits.
“I want you to write about the reason you became an addict,” she says. “Not the fun reason—the real reason.”
In prison, there’s a war between the attitudinal poles of punishment and rehabilitation. To put them down or prop them up, that is the question. Make them pound rocks or foster recovery and redemption? Prescribe them into pharmaceutical oblivion or teach them how to meditate and salute the sun? Bouncing many times a day between classes and the corridors and cells—where we’re constantly barked at for walking too slowly or punished with loss of yard time for wearing an ID tag too low—generates an advanced state of agitation that, with luck and a whole lot of determination, eventually morphs into acceptance.
A Supreme Court ruling that allows all religions to be practiced in prison—Native American, Buddhism, Islam, and Wicca included—is the main reason yoga and meditation have subtly but surely seeped into the correctional culture. But the yoga class I teach once a week is listed on the formal daily schedule as “mental health relaxation.” Otherwise, I wouldn’t be allowed, along with several other women, to wriggle out of my morning steps-to-recovery class.
“Time for mental health on a mat,’ I whisper to my steps instructor.
“I wish I could make yoga part of this class instead of all this talk,” she whispers, shuffling a stack of handouts titled “The Wounded Inner Child.”
“Yo, Pimpin.” A woman approaches me as I haul my load of mats from the gym to a classroom down the hall.
“You doin’ that yogurt stuff?”
“Damn straight. Takes me outta here to a much better place.”
I enter the large, windowed room and count heads. The word is out: there are new women with nervous smiles. Most come for the distraction, to forget this place where there’s, both figuratively and literally, no escape. Boredom and depression are the primary motivators, not learning a new skill, being hip, or losing a few pounds. They simply want to forget where they are.
The staff therapist who cleverly designed this hour of yoga and meditation had an advanced degree in institutional inertia. She understood how to circumvent the sludge that can incapacitate worthy, but hard-to-pigeonhole programs.
“Rumor has it you know yoga,” she said. “Want to teach it?”
“I’m not certified,” I said. “I’m just a longtime practitioner. Do we have to get me cleared, or searched, or something?”
She shook her head and smiled. “If we ask for formal approval, it’ll turn into a protracted ordeal of micro-analyzing something into six pounds of wasted paper.”
I’ve been amazed by the rapt attention I receive from my fledgling students. They’re unaccustomed to contortions, and to sensations other than crack, junk, booze, and beatings. For me the gift is simple: to teach something based entirely on love, not technique or discipline. Here, I’m liberated to share with them what I know, free of the outside world’s performance pressures. Here, I can be as ignorant of yoga’s precise terminology and subtle choreography as I am, and still be the guide to their first awkward forays into physicality and purpose.
Because we’re all in this together, my teachings get personal and appropriate. One of the most popular requests is the warrior pose. “Think of this as a full-force way of saying no,” I suggest. “Your hand is blocking whatever it is you no longer want: addiction, abuse, selling your body. Now, push it into the ground beside your foot. Crush it. Bury it. Say goodbye for good. Turn your head away from all that dark stuff and reach for the sky. Reach for the light.”
“What’s up with this yoga stuff, Pimpin?” someone asks at the end of class. “You took me from cobra to camel to bridge to fish. It’s like I’m on safari! I am definitely coming back, girl. You got some kinda healing bomb!”
Compliments don’t get better than that.
“Chow! Now! Go to chow!”
Chow. Think neon green Jell-O and mystery soup. Some women here have spent years negotiating with prison officials, documenting religious and/or medical reasons why they require a vegetarian diet.
“It took me about five years to convince this place that Buddhism is a legitimate religion,” says my friend Joli, a woman brimming with incongruous, stunning beatitude.
Our friendship evolved after, in the tiny prison library, we simultaneously reached for a copy of We’re All Doing Time: A Guide to Getting Free, which has become an unofficial prison bible. The book was written in 1985 by Bo Lozoff, the founder of the Human Kindness Foundation. Lozoff and his wife, Sita, became dedicated to the concept that we can achieve freedom—anywhere—when Sita’s brother ended up in prison over a shipment of marijuana from Jamaica to Miami. This led to the Prison-Ashram Project. Its motto: “Be a monk, not a convict.”
Leaving chow, Joli and I spoon the remains of our sugar-infused, additive-rich, carb-loaded lunches into a slop barrel rumored to feed a neighboring farmer’s pigs.
A guard barks, “Hey, you two! Get moving!” and we part, still laughing, like high-school cheerleaders dawdling before the next class.
“End of ten-minute movement! End of ten-minute movement!”
Tonight is mindful meditation class, a once-a-week, two-hour sangha. The class owes its existence to Joli’s long, frustrating efforts to convince skeptical Massachusetts DOC officials that Buddhism is a legitimate religion. As soon as the approval was posted on the Corrections website, people from “outside” sanghas rallied to the dharma call. That they endure scrutiny, pat-downs, and a draconian, two-hour orientation just to spend two hours of their lives here touches us deeply. Often the feeling is reciprocal; they say they find our sessions powerful and enlightening.
The cacophony in the corridor sounds like a distant, angry river as we sit on meditation cushions our mentors have donated. We form a circle, facing a collection of battery-operated candles and a vase of plastic flowers. In the beginning, the flowers were real and the overhead fluorescent lights were turned off. One of our friends brought us baby carrots or grapes or raisins—precious ambrosia to us—and we’d do eating meditations. But that didn’t last. The food was banned and the lights were turned back on. In the dim flicker of candles, we might plot escape; the raisins could be smuggled out under our tongues to brew cell “hooch.” The flowers? Who knows. But now they’re fake.
There are many prison rules with no apparent point. Visitors can’t wear clothing with corporate logos, such as Adidas or Nike. No sitting on the grass in the exercise yard. No lending or borrowing. Luckily, they haven’t figured out how to ban caring, a regular component in this jury-rigged sangha of ours.
“I thought I’d kill myself when I first got here,” Joli tells us. “Then it dawned on me: This is an amazing time right here, right now. I haven’t felt this alive and safe in years!” She pauses and beams. “Go figure.”
Her remarks elicit a collective laugh over the paradox of not simply surviving, but thriving in a place where suffering is standard operating procedure.
“Final downward movement! Final downward movement!”
Two hours of meditation, readings, and yoga, and it’s a wrap. Ending a day here is always more satisfying than beginning one. In post-meditation bliss, after chasing our version of satori for nearly two hours, re-entry into the high-pitched gridlock lurking outside our sangha’s steel door feels as though we’re cruising over an L.A. freeway using environmentally friendly jet-packs.
“Check out the sky,” Joli says as we spill into the yard, heading for our units to be counted and locked in for the night. We all look up.
Framingham is the country’s oldest prison for women, erected on a bucolic piece of farmland in 1847. Were it not wrapped in razor wire and covered with cement, this place would be a gorgeous piece of real estate, encircled by grand maples and offering splendid dusks and dawns.
“Whoa!” We gasp as a shooting star blazes across the sky.
“Know what that was?” Joli asks us.
“An angel bomb,” says one.
“The tear of our watchful goddess,” says another.
“One of the thousands of souls who were here before us,” says a third.
My turn. It comes with crystalline lucidity.
“Liberation. Right here. Right now.”–>
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.