Atonement and Release

Falling is the story of how a middle-aged mom learns to navigate life on the Inside. Over the six years I was incarcerated, I learned how to eat a meal in 10 minutes with a spork. I learned obedience and humility. I learned lurid slang. I learned how to keep my mouth shut. I learned how to mother from behind bars, miles from my teenage daughters. And finally, I learned how to love the unloveable, including myself.

I was released from prison on April Fools’ Day 2011. The date is not lost on me. It is a yearly reminder to reflect on my mistakes. Reestablishing myself took years. I didn’t have the energy to write or reflect about prison. I was moving forward. I met some surprising women behind bars and was touched and changed by their stories. I made a promise that I would free their voices. In moments of vulnerability, we shared common grief and pain from the harm we caused by our actions. I began writing Falling four years later. When I finally opened that black door, images and memories came flooding back. One day, I saw the same Intake plastic brown sandals at Rite-Aid. I felt sick all over again. I wondered how I survived it.

It was my original intention to write a guidebook. No one had written one about women’s prisons when I needed it. I remember awaiting sentencing, wondering things like, will I get a bra? Will I have to sit behind a glass partition to see my children? Who, exactly, are the women? I took out my journals, photos, and letters from prison. I opened up a large box that held scraps of paper with the inmate women’s quotes. I picked through them, laughing and crying. I was able to see their faces and their gestures. I could easily recreate the scene. I organized the scraps into heaps and chapters that made sense but to only me. I needed help.

From the beginning, I have had two editors, Michelle Smith, and Kate Hopper. Kate called it a beautiful mess. “This has to be a memoir and you are going to have to start at the beginning and write yourself into it. That includes Tom, your daughters, your friends and family, all the people affected by the accident.” The idea shook me to the core.

I had been insulating myself by writing about the women, not me. I did not seek out friendships. I did not date for several years. If new friends learned who I was and what I had done, they would feel betrayed that I did not tell them what happened. I would be rejected and isolated all over again.

My family sacrificed lifestyles and finances for many years. We told each other I love you, but we were frail and unhappy. Something had to give. I needed to understand what they went through, all of them. I had to ask for the unvarnished truth. I approached my step-mother, Glitter, first and asked her to offer her thoughts.

“Do we really have to talk about this?” she asked me. Then, she laid both hands on the table and faced me, “Could we please talk about this?” That question opened the black door to a vortex of clarity. They have been waiting for this.