Tuesday, July 10th, 2007
In her just-released memoir, Visiting Life: Women Doing Time on the Outside,
Bridget Kinsella, an editor at Publishers Weekly for 14 years, has written a story fueled in part by literary love. After meeting through a now-defunct writing program at California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison, Kinsella began a correspondence with, and eventually visited, Rory Mehan, a 30-year-old man serving life without parole for murder. Their first visit was followed by many more, and through letters, phone calls, and their time together in the prison visitation room, an unusual and transforming love developed.
As she documents the startling and unlikely discovery of a soulmate behind bars, Kinsella examines how her heightened and constrained relationship with Rory helped her discover new depths of passion and compassion within herself. Kinsella bravely reveals the devastation of her romantic past, the dissolution of her fairy-tale marriage to a man who later came out as gay, and her deep sorrow over missing the opportunity to have children. She presents her love affair with a man who will never leave prison as profoundly healing. (Read an excerpt here.)
Along the way, Kinsella met many different women in the visiting room, and some of their stories are included in her narrative, as they agreed to be interviewed about their lives and choices. The U.S. imprisons more of its citizens per capita than any other democracy. Visiting Life provides a unique view from the inside out, both telling a mesmerizing personal story and casting light on the plight of the many millions of Americans who are “doing time” along with their lovers, their parents or their children who are incarcerated. —Piper Kerman
What drove you to tell your story? What do you think pushed you from private experience to public testimony?
I was having this incredibly transforming experience with Rory, whom I met through the writing program at Pelican Bay. I met him under that circumstance, and yet it turned into something totally different.
I walked into Pelican Bay carrying the wounds of a marriage that had ended, my ex-husband had told me he was gay, and I just couldn’t get over that. But I stumbled into this interaction with Rory, and we opened up to each other in a way that was incredibly healing to me and also to him.
As a journalist I’ve been a storyteller for 20 years, so it’s almost not possible for me to not share my experience. As I told people about what was happening to me they felt it was extraordinary, and wanted to know more. Rory and I helped each other become the people we wanted to become. I wanted to investigate ‘Why did this happen?’ and what had happened to me as honestly as I possibly could.
In the media you read about situations like the women who pursue and are involved with “infamous inmates” like the Menendez brothers, which just didn’t make sense to me. And I wanted to meet other women who were going through similar experiences to mine and tell their stories without judgment. I felt that the media always tries to make these women seem stupid.
You say in your conversation with Naomi (the wife of another Pelican Bay prisoner) that if there’s a common thread between yourself and all the women you met in the prison visiting room, it was that you were all wounded. How so?
This is not a sociological study, it’s my personal experience in this “sorority” and I hope it invites a larger conversation. The women I met all had a wound—like the end of my marriage and the fact that I did not have a child which I wanted so much—there was something in our lives that we really couldn’t get over. It’s the wounded healing the wounded.
But that’s just the beginning of the story. There are over 2 million people in prison in this country, and I also wanted to encourage others to tell their stories of coping with their loved ones being locked up.
If you could correct one misconception about women in relationships with men in prison, who love and support and sustain them, what would it be?
The biggest misconception is that they are stupid, and that’s just not true—also, they run the gamut of the social spectrum. It’s like the DMV, you see people from every race, religion, walk of life. I hoped to give voice to this fact.
You chose to include the stories of women who had met their men while the guys were already in prison. Did you consider including the stories of women who were with men before they were locked up?
I really wanted to understand how others, like me, were drawn into this situation. I needed to speak from my own experience, but I also wanted to talk to people who could really share and understand what was happening.
The women in my book are the women I truly interacted with as I was visiting. I wish that I had been able to include a wider spectrum of the women in the book. For example there was one black woman who I was becoming friendly with but she and I just didn’t overlap on visits, and we didn’t grow closer and get to the point where I felt I could ask to interview her. The racial divide inside prisons is a very real factor, and that does carry over to the visiting room folks as well. Female visitors treat each other with respect, but they do seem to self-segregate.
I think a woman of color would write a very different book and I would like to read it.
Why did you choose to tell Ruth’s story first (among those of other women) in the book? And how difficult was it to persuade women to allow you to relate their stories?
It’s in the order in which I did the interviews. Ruth is the first person who talked with me. Most women that I talked to wanted to share their situations, but they were also very concerned with the impact on their loved ones inside.
How much responsibility did you feel to clear the facts of your narrative with the people who are part of it? Rory, your family, the people you encountered on Mother’s Day?
As a working journalist for 20 years I was pretty confident about getting the facts right. I worked from extensive personal journals and interviews. But most of the story is mine and Rory’s and he was fine with anything I shared about that. My ex-husband is not thrilled, but he recognizes that it’s my story to tell. Even my treasured memories of our past are corrupted by his deception—everything is called into question.
The process of writing the book was incredibly cathartic. The thing about being the spouse left by someone who comes out as gay is that there’s no real outlet to heal your own damage. You’re collateral damage but there’s not much respect given to that fact, or to what you’re going through.
The relationship with Rory really healed my sexual identity as a woman, even though it was a relationship that could never be sexually intimate. There are certain things that only a paid professional therapist or the person who loves you can help you work through, and heal. I needed to get that from a man. What Rory did for me that a therapist couldn’t was fall in love with me.
Rory says in one of his letters to you that we are shaped more by the things we survive than the things we enjoy. I’m wondering if you think that’s true?
I think at the time that he wrote that, I probably believed it more. We are certainly shaped by the things that hurt us, and that’s why there are so many songs about heartache! But I feel less like that now. The trick is to find joy, and that’s one of the most important things that I learned from Rory was the ability to find hope, to find joy every day, even in his situation.
The restraint the prison visiting room rules imposed seems to create a sense of almost old-world romance, and also you describe a powerful intensity of feeling that is perhaps less blunted than ordinary interactions “on the outs.” What is an everyday world relationship like in comparison?
I’m not in a relationship with anyone right now. Rory really wants me to find a relationship with someone on the outside. And I believe that Rory’s love has made me more able to love now. I know that I have the ability to have this intense, close, intimate relationship with someone I can’t be sexually intimate with, and that might help me to be more trusting and able to take a leap of faith with someone else.
For prisoners, the very fact of someone from the outside’s care, concern and involvement in their lives is a huge humanizing force, so powerful in the face of prison institutionalization. It’s proof that their lives still matter. What about for you? That impact on another person’s life is intoxicating, and you capture that so well. How else did your impact on Rory make you feel?
The extreme nature of being “the world” for Rory really helped me heal. My ex dropped me flat, but Rory swallowed me whole. Interestingly that was what helped bring me back to my whole self. It is intoxicating to be everything to someone.
Were you ever tempted to marry Rory, like the other women in the book had done with their partners in prison? How did you determine the limits of the relationship?
There were always boundaries, sometimes literal, on the relationship. I was in a prison of pain, and if I married him and moved to Crescent City (where Pelican Bay is located), I would no longer have been living the life I needed to live. Rory didn’t want that for me. Writing the book was perhaps one of the ways that I maintained some distance, held off from where things could have gone.
Rory is so content—he is at peace with how things have worked out. Loving someone and getting to be with them are not the same things. He’s happy with what we have, rather than being obsessed with what might have been. He’s content with the relationship we share, and I don’t pine for him. But I do miss his company, like a best friend, someone I am completely comfortable with. I love his company like no one else’s.
Read an excerpt from Visiting Life.
Buy Visiting Life here.
Piper Kerman is writing a memoir about serving time in Federal Prison, to be published by Spiegel & Grau in spring 2008.