The “gross-mouthed pagan lesbian” who inspired my prison memoir

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One of the first people I met in prison was a rude pagan lesbian named Susan. I loved her from the start. She was in her early 60s when we met, and her graying hair stood out in an upstate New York cellblock full of people in their twenties like me.

Unlike most of us, she wasn’t addicted to drugs; it was a drunk driving charge that landed her behind bars. And unlike most of us, she was single, had no children, and actually had a long employment history. She had been a veterinarian and a firefighter and in the merchant navy.

The first time I remember talking to him was probably on my second day there. She was the only one who regularly read the newspaper – did the crossword – and watched the local news. So she’s the one who spotted my mangy-faced shot on TV. When the other women got excited and woke me up, she raised an eyebrow and said, “You’re famous.”

I couldn’t tell if it was friendly or hostile, and I was too stoned to care. But over the next few weeks, I got to know her. I asked him questions about his life as we sat at the metal tables in the cell block and did crossword puzzles together, marking the answers in pen on his copy of the Ithaca Journal.

I had a long history of crossword puzzles before prison, but I had steered clear of it during all those years of drug use. As I sat down with Susan, I was reminded of how much I loved those riddles – it was like the only place I, an asshole, still knew the black and white answers.

Over the crossword, Susan told me that she grew up a Navy brat, then went to Smith College and ended up drinking. By the time I met her at Tompkins County Jail in 2011, she had racked up a long, long DWI streak. More than anything, she said, she wanted help. She seemed so serious and calm and full of acceptance – all rare traits in the county jail, where so many people are caught up in the emotional riot of early sobriety.

She gave me a poetry anthology, “Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times,” which I carried with me throughout my 21-month candidacy, and which I still have today. I read and re-read these poems, writing in the margins and scratching the pages. Some of them I already knew from the English lessons I had taken before my arrest, but others I was learning for the first time.

One – “Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith – that I had already memorized, I wrote by hand and pasted with toothpaste on the bunk above me.

A few days after my arrival, she told me to start keeping a diary of everything I had seen in prison: “It could be a book,” she said. “At least it’s too weird not to write it.”

I bought yellow notepads from the commissioner and followed his advice, filling page after page with the boredom and terror of prison life.

Because she had had so many DWIs, Susan absolutely knew she was going to jail, but she wanted to go to rehab first. So she begged the judge to let her go for nine months before jail, even though it wouldn’t lighten her sentence. The judge agreed.

The last night before he left, we played the farewell trivia game. We had the “A for Assholes” team against the “B is for Bitches” team. She drew lots for items from the commissary; we played for Kit Kat bars and cupcakes, and we laughed hysterically the whole time. Even if she didn’t come home, it felt like a happy goodbye.

But of course she was back months later. She had finished rehab and was now heading to jail, just weeks before I was going there myself. I was delighted to see her, despite the circumstances. Plus, I knew that was another person I would see upstate.

When I got there, it turned out that most of the time we weren’t in the same prison — although a few weeks after I arrived, I was assigned to a cell she had just left. , accidentally leaving behind a pagan necklace that I recognized . Somehow I managed to give it back to her, but after that I didn’t see her much again until I came out in the fall of 2012.

By the time I returned to Ithaca, she was already there and settled there. She seemed to know everyone in the community and followed all the latest criminal justice issues — like debates over whether to expand the local jail and what alternatives to incarceration the county might offer. After we started covering the county legislature for the local alternative weekly, we ran into each other a few times at meetings and then realized we lived a few blocks from each other and his house was near my running route.

“What’s up with all the jogging in the neighborhood?” she emailed me afterwards. “I hope you spend some time with your little dog, while I’m just lounging or sweeping the sidewalk, so we can have a quick chat.”

I did, of course. We had coffee in her crowded kitchen, and after that she sent me story ideas regularly, checking that I was following the latest policies on body cams. At the end of each email, I noticed that his signature line included that quote from Dostoyevsky so famous in criminal justice circles: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons .”

We ended up on the same nonprofit board, and once we carpooled to visit our friends who were still in jail. It was like we both went through it all in one piece.

But after I got a job at the New York Daily News and moved away, we didn’t keep in touch as much. She was less responsive to my emails and it wasn’t until later that I found out she was suffering from dementia and alcoholism.

The last time we communicated was when I sent her one of my stories, she read it and replied, “Nice job Keri, great article.”

Eventually, when I couldn’t reach her on a visit to town, a mutual friend told me she had started drinking again. She lived alone and had been found wandering on the street. Things continued to deteriorate.

My life, meanwhile, did not. After the Daily News, I moved to Texas to write for the Houston Chronicle. I started covering prisons and writing stories that sometimes changed the lives of people living in the places Susan and I lived. Eventually I started writing essays about my own story and at the end of 2019 I signed a book deal: these prison diaries would finally become the memoirs Susan had suggested. And Stevie Smith’s poem from this anthology she gave me would become the epigraph.

But I couldn’t call her to celebrate – Susan had passed away three months earlier. According to her obituary, which I only read weeks after the fact, she had struggled “with her old demons” before being found dead in mid-September.

“Like the unsinkable Molly Brown, the outrageous Susan Begg pulled herself out of the water and charmed her way to the next adventure,” the tribute continued, asking her friends and supporters to donate to a center detox room in his honor.

When we were in prison, Susan seemed like an unwavering force of calm, like someone so determined to change. It was what I wanted for me. I think I got there with the second one at least.

Keri Blakinger is a writer whose work focuses on jails and jails. She previously covered criminal justice for the Houston Chronicle, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, VICE, New York Daily News and The New York Times. She is the organization’s first formerly incarcerated journalist. Her memoir, “Corrections in Ink,” was released in June 2022. She hates the cold and lives in Texas.

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