Melting away the shame…

Women Outside the WallsOne early, wintry Sunday morning I found myself sitting in the waiting area of an Illinois State Prison for Men.  I was about to visit a confessed murderer. I was writing his story for a stage play I was developing.

I felt like a fish out of water. Over dressed, out of place, and very conscious of the other women around me. Probably much like how Kitty felt, in my future book. The only males in the room were young, probably sons and nephews of the incarcerated men we were waiting to see. And here was an odd thing, everyone’s shoes were untied.  I found out later, and by personal experience, that the other visitors knew the drill.  The CO’s (correctional officers) would search our persons which included removing our shoes for inspection.

Trying hard not to stare, I observed the hopeful resignation on these women’s faces.  They knew each other and murmured news and gossip to one another.  I was definitely an outsider and did not belong.  As I sat there an overwhelming urge to know their stories and write them down came to me.  It was urgent that I find out what brought them to this place.  They didn’t look like bad people. They were women you saw at the store, on the street, in an office, ordinary in every way; wives, mothers, sisters.

Now it was time to go inside. I remember heavy steel doors clanging shut behind us. It was a scary moment; I had just given up my freedom. Even though it was for a short time, my rights and freedom were in other people’s hands.  I was assigned a table and sat down to wait for Bill. The suppressed frustration and rage in that room was palatable. Other than a short hug between loved ones, no touching was allowed.  I’m certain that contraband was exchanged but I never witnessed it. The women were indefatigably cheerful in front of their men.  It might have been a crowded city park, families sitting at picnic tables visiting, playing cards, giving their children snacks; save for the concertina wire at the top of the fence.

A year and a half later when I was in the final rewrite of my novel Women Outside the Walls I was working on the acknowledgments. One woman, in particular, had shared so much with me, about her life outside the walls.  I wished to thank her but still maintain her anonymity. I asked her if I could use her first name and only the initial of her surname. Would that protect her, I asked, and keep her clients from knowing about her personal life? Her reply to this question was this:
“It doesn’t matter if your readers figure it out and discover that it’s me…your book has taken away all my shame…”

Shirley K. had stood by her man while he served ten years.  Raising their children, supporting an unwed daughter and grandchild and working two jobs.  Half way through her husband’s term, Shirley’s son was sentenced to life for murder.  Now she was visiting two of her men in prison. She’s a hero in my book.  She did nothing to deserve this kind of life.  Never even had a traffic ticket. And that’s the common thread among these women.  Married, raising their children; mid-stream America, right?  Then their husbands or sons or brothers make a stupid decision and end up in prison.

I asked Shirley how she and the other women kept up a brave face when visiting their husbands. She told me stories about how after the visit was over the women, friends for years, had a designated rest area (down the highway a couple of exits from the prison) that they would meet at after visitation.  That’s where they shared their tears, grief, anger, and commonality of spirit.  But they never let their husbands see what they were going through. They were serving time in their own personal prison; doing their own time.

Little did I know that my novel about wives waiting outside the walls, while their men served out their sentences, would have this kind of impact. What I did know was, as I wrote the book, I met many women from all walks of life that had someone currently in prison or had that experience in the past. Most of my book is based on true stories told to me. As a writer it is not uncommon for me to have people, strangers, appear in my life to share and contribute something to my writing. It’s welcomed but uncanny.

Epilogue: Shirley’s son, convicted of murder and sentenced to life, had his conviction and sentence reduced to manslaughter and fifteen years.  He was released in 2014.
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3 thoughts on “Melting away the shame…”

  1. A real eye opener. We never give much to thought to those at home.
    Can’t wait to read the book…. P.C.

  2. Trish, This explains why you do what you do.To see details of the moment and put them in a visual form is not something everyone can do.To see the world in three dimensions is a gift.Most would have fixated on how uncomfortable they felt then stared at a wall to free themselves of the moment..I also think you not only heard the steel doors, you felt the steel doors close. Frederic P. (poet on

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