EXCERPT: Visiting Life by Bridget Kinsella

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

By piper

After meeting through a now-defunct writing program at California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison, journalist Bridget Kinsella began a correspondence with, and eventually visited, Rory Mehan, a 30-year-old man serving life without parole for a revenge 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.

In this excerpt below, Kinsella explains how this unusual relationship began. “Murderer or not,” writes Kinsella of her first in-person encounter, “the man knows how to make an entrance. Nearly a year and many letters later, here I am visiting my client at Pelican Bay.”

Click here to read a conversation between Kinsella and ex-con author Piper Kerman.Visiting Life: Women Doing Time on the Outside

Chapter 1: Just Visiting

The first time I walked into a maximum-security prison I dressed like a lawyer—though it wasn’t my intention. Let’s just say there are lots of rules about what a woman can and cannot wear inside a men’s maximum-security prison: no inmate-blue denim and no cop-green khaki seemed the most important ones. I figured it best to have a modest hemline and thought to-the-knee was plenty modest. The guard didn’t agree and sent me back to my car to change.

The last time I’d changed clothes in my car was the summer I worked two jobs and went to night school. Somewhere stopped in traffic along the New Jersey Turnpike between my job at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson and class at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, I decided to wiggle out of my work skirt and into my student cutoffs without looking to see if there were any truckers who might get an eyeful. This time I am more conscious of changing in the open as I shimmy out of my pale green dress deemed inappropriate and into a black-and-white number I think will pass prison scrutiny.

How did I get here? I ask myself, scanning the myriad fences, razor wire, and looming guard towers of Pelican Bay State Prison. Yes, Pelican Bay. Whenever anyone writes or speaks of this notorious prison in Crescent City, California, they usually call it “the worst of the worst.” They mean the worst criminals and the worst treatment.

I think back on my twenty-something self cruising along in my white-with-red-vinyl-roof Pontiac Sunbird as my thirty-nine-year-old self changes shoes in my rust-colored Chevy Cavalier not much bigger than my beloved first set of wheels. The older I get the more I realize we never actually shake off the internal image of our younger selves but hopefully evolve from it. Out of about three hundred students in high school I graduated something like thirteenth (just my luck). At the top but not the top—A minus—because Mrs. Bliss was right: things came too easily to me and I didn’t always apply myself. Nonetheless, I displayed all the trappings of a young woman ready to make her mark.

Cheerleader. Yearbook editor. The dutiful youngest daughter of five in a loving Irish-Italian working-class family putting herself through school. Girls like me don’t grow up to visit convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons.

Yet here I am.

“‘Twas reading that did me in,” I say out loud as if I’m spinnin’ a yarn for some imaginary person in the passenger seat now littered with discarded clothes. I laugh because after eight years of living alone, much of that time spent working at home, I notice that I talk to myself a lot.

As I step out of the car I do think I look like a lawyer. I assume that I am a very different sort of person than the other people visiting today, but I cannot put my finger on why I think that way. I wear black patent leather high-heeled Mary Janes, a pleated dress dangling just below the knee, a black blazer that covers me from shoulder to midthigh. All I need to complete the effect is a briefcase. Instead, I clutch the plastic Ziploc bag containing the only things I am allowed to bring into the big house: thirty one- dollar bills (which the prisoner is never allowed to touch), some old pictures, and my car keys.

How did I get here?

It’s simple, really. For ten years I worked as a journalist covering the publishing world. Then a year ago I tried my hand at being a literary agent. It made sense. I had earned a reputation as someone who could judge the commercial or literary viability of a book. Why not do it from the other side?

Once you head down that road, manuscripts appear from the strangest sources. Seems like everyone has an uncle or a friend or a spouse who wrote a book and just needs someone to help them get it published.

One of my friends is a writer who taught creative writing at Pelican Bay.

He assured me that each week during his class the other inmates would read first, saving the star student’s latest installment for last as if it were dessert. Although my friend wanted me to read his student’s book, he was reluctant to give a woman’s name to a convicted murderer doing life without parole, plus fifteen. Besides, he wasn’t supposed to help a convict with any potential commercial enterprise. Instead, he hinted to his student, CDC#K78728, that he might send the unfinished manuscript to his own publisher in New York.

When the publisher rejected the manuscript, he forwarded it on to me.

The inmate’s letter to the publisher included these postscripts: “I am currently incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison. This will cause a slight delay in our written correspondence. P.P.S. Life sentence. Murder. And if you have any more questions, feel free to ask me.”

The book blew me away. Snap! From the first page it took off and barreled its way along to a shocking conclusion. I decided to contact this Rory Mehan and tell him I thought he was a talented writer. At the very least I knew I’d make his day. Knowing it’s not smart to give your real address to a man in prison, I got myself a private mailbox address just in case (Of what? That he’d break out of prison?) and sent off the letter: “Dear Mr. Mehan, blah, blah, blah.
Talented writer. Send me more. Oh, and keep writing. Sincerely, Bridget Kinsella, Literary Agent.” I didn’t mention murder.

A month later I found a white envelope with my name and address written in a small-cap penciled print in my mailbox. I opened it in my car. There was no salutation, no “dear so-and-so,” it just took off. Much like the novel he wrote. My first real glimpse of Mr. Mehan came on three-hole-ring-punched, school-ruled paper:

So I’m sitting here in my concrete box, just looking out my tiny sliver of a window, amazed at what I see. Ash is falling from the miscolored afternoon sky in thick swirling flurries like snow, like dead grey skin falling from a psoriatic finally giving in to the constant promising pleasure of the itch.

And the television tells me that 32,000 fires are currently blazing across America. Oregon, eight miles away, is not the only state burning.

And the ash, it just keeps falling, filling a foreign orange world, fluttering down from a steadily purpling sky, a fresh bruise growing darker right before my eyes. It clings to the stinging razor wire. It piles up in drifts.

It’s the middle of the summer.

I haven’t seen the sun in weeks.

And thousands of dead squid are washing ashore in California, littering the postcard beaches, disrupting the fantasy/delusion that everything is all-right. The newscaster says that “nobody knows why.”

I’m laughing.

It’s my new way of crying.

Because I’m thinking if thousands of dead squid covering California beaches is not a natural occurrence, then isn’t it obvious that we [underlined three times] are the reason why?

And that, Bridget Kinsella, is when your letter slides under my cell door, skidding across the smooth stone floor to land inches from my right hush puppy.

Murderer or not, the man knows how to make an entrance. Nearly a year and many letters later, here I am visiting my client at Pelican Bay.

The guard approves of my change of clothes. I fill out a form with Rory’s California Department of Corrections (CDC) number on it, my name and address and relationship to the prisoner. I write “friend,” because we are friends by now, having written to each other for months, and it is no business of the prison if I am his literary agent. The guard, a pleasant man with close-cropped hair and a well-ironed uniform, processes the paperwork to make sure I am an “approved” visitor. Since it took awhile for me to change clothes, I am the only person left in the visiting way station. It’s not much to look at. It could almost be a small-town post office. I am fascinated by a glass-encased display with T-shirts and sweatshirts sporting the Pelican Bay logo as if it’s some sort of sports franchise to cheer on. Someone with an odd sense of humor came up with the slogans for the shirts. “Felony Day Camp” is my favorite.

I am nervous, but I am not sure why. There are several guards behind the counter, a handful of men and one woman. The guard who asked me to change clothes calls my name. I walk forward and another guard tells me I almost look too good to be going in there––but he says it with a smile, as a way to ease my nerves. He instructs me to take off my shoes, jewelry, or anything else that might set off the metal detector to my right. Even though it’s summer, the linoleum feels cold and the carpeted hump comes as a relief when I step into the machine. That is, until the alarm sounds and I have to turn back.

“Underwire?” asks the second guard. “Yes,” I answer, a little flushed because no one likes setting off an alarm. He hands me scissors with the tips chopped off and tells me to go into the ladies’ room to cut them out. “But this is my favorite bra,” I half joke. “Can’t I just take it off?” That elicits a resounding “no” from both guards. So I go to the ladies’ room and do as I’m told. The second button comes off of my dress when I remove it to get to my pretty pink bra that is about to become wireless. Cutting silk—even faux silk—with sawed-off scissors isn’t easy, but I manage. My jacket covers my dress so I just button up as best I can. I return to the desk and hand my dress button to the guard to hold for me.

The alarm goes off again. I can’t imagine why. I have never had such trouble in airports–and that’s with the underwire. The guard asks me what I am wearing under my dress. “Panty hose,” I say, “underwear. That’s it.” He tells me that next time I should wear a slip. Still flushed from the alarm, I’m thinking that I don’t even own a slip, and then the other guard discovers the culprit. My button. It’s cloth over metal. Who knew? I have nothing else to change into and I hope they are not going to send me to the “hospitality” house and make me borrow some unknown woman’s donated clothes.

This is not helping my nerves. Then the guards do something really nice. They let me walk around the metal detector where they wand me and then lead me into a small room. A guard hands me my belongings in a scuffed-up, wooden “in-box” kind of container. I hastily put on my shoes and jewelry. One guard stamps the underside of my wrist with something that doesn’t show in normal light and the other buzzes the door open.

I gingerly walk through the door leading out the back of the building and enter the first of two fenced-in pens I must cross to get beyond the prison’s carefully constructed and lethal fences. I jump a little bit at the sound of a gate mechanically opening before me. A sign tells me not to approach the gate until it is fully opened. I comply and walk through and enter the second fence-and-concrete pen. Three concentric fences snaking around the prison complex stretch out on either side of the pen. The first and the third fences look like normal Home Depot chain-link–although they stand about twenty feet in the air and have razor wire looped at the top. I’m guessing that the middle fence, composed of a delicate, spiderweb-like wire connected to metal braces every few feet, is electric, and I don’t dare touch anything. I hear the gate closing behind me. The gate I face doesn’t begin to open until the other one completes its journey.

When I step out of the second pen and onto a walkway I think that I am now on “the inside.” But that’s just silly. The visiting buildings are down a concrete path and about twenty-five yards away. I assume they are separate from the general population and supermax buildings and heavily guarded. I take a deep breath and start walking. The California sun blazes down on me and I notice that the walkway is unadorned with any vegetation. I hear someone tapping on one of those sliver windows in the two-story concrete bunker of a building to my left. My heels clack against the sidewalk as I quicken my pace. There is nothing much to look at as I pass through an unnatural courtyard of concrete and dirt into a gray, nondescript one-story building.

Mostly it feels like I am walking into a school, and I remember that the public high school in the town where I attended Catholic school was actually designed by an architect who specialized in prisons. It had slits for windows, too.

Inside there are two reception areas, one to my left and one to my right. I turn left as told. The guard seated at a desk in front of a closed-circuit monitor looks at my pass and takes my ID. On his belt there are huge keys, of the size and shape that might open some medieval castle. I comment on this and the guard says the kids love those keys as he uses one to open the door into the visiting room for me.

Then I’m standing inside a sterile room. If not for the fact that all the prisoners wear denim shirts and jeans, the setting feels almost like a normal cafeteria. With armed guards, that is. There are vending machines, small round tables, and unforgiving fluorescent lights. A guard at a slightly elevated counter across the room motions to me. Briskly I walk past the several groups of people in midvisit. A little girl of about three catches my eye. Audrey Hepburn getting ready to visit Sing Sing in Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes to mind, as she says to George Peppard: “You think it should be sad seeing children there; but it isn’t. They’re all dressed up with ribbons in their hair.” This girl is all dressed up with no ribbons but several braids with pink fasteners adorning her head.

The guard says, “Over here.” He takes my pass and briefs me on procedures.

“There is a brief kiss and embrace allowed at the beginning and end of the visit,” he tells me sternly but through a bucktoothed smile. I tell him it’s not that kind of visit. “You have no idea what I see up here,” he continues. The smile is innocuous enough, but I’m wondering if maybe this guy likes watching such exchanges just a little too much.

All the other guards have been so friendly. Believe me: I am happy for their presence. I am glad they care what I look like coming in here, because while I wanted to look pretty for the visit—as I would for any business or social meeting—I am well aware that I am in a room with men who do not see very many women. And while I am not in the least afraid of meeting Rory, I am a little afraid of these other guys. I am even more conscious of that in here than I would be on a New York City subway at midnight.

The guard, whom I am already mentally nicknaming “Buck Tooth,” assigns me a table with the number “16″ stenciled on it. He tells me that during the visit we are only allowed to hold hands—on top of the table. I fight the urge to snap at him and admit to myself that I wouldn’t last a week in prison.


Buy Visiting Life.

Read an interview with Bridget Kinsella.

Reprinted from VISITING LIFE: Women Doing Time on the Outside by Bridget
Kinsella. Copyright (c) 2007. Published by Harmony Books, a division of
Random House, Inc.

54 responses

  1. Another prison Wife in FL says:

    The emotions told by Ms. Kinsella are exactly what we feel as we enter the gates to the prison. We are glad to be able to see our loved one but have that stigma of “why do you want to stay with him?” WHY? Sometimes I am not even sure, I only know the love I have for him and he has for me.
    Thank you Ms. Kinsella for telling this story. There are many more out there to be told.

  2. Visiting Life with Others says:

    Hi Ms.Kinsella, I am enjoying your book alot. I have to write a poem about it and it is really great. You have a way of going into detail and that is what I love to read. Do you have any other books published because I would love to read them. I am currently 16 and I cant wait to read more of the future.

  3. Britni Ploszaj says:

    Magnificent website. Lots of helpful information here. I am sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks to your sweat!

  4. Beatriz says:

    It’s hard to find your website in google. I found it on 19 spot, you
    should build quality backlinks , it will help you to rank to google top 10.

    I know how to help you, just search in google - k2 seo tips

  5. Healthy Environment says:

    Wow! Thank you! I constantly needed to write on my website something like that. Can I implement a portion of your post to my site?

  6. token listrik says:

    I¡¦ll right away grasp your rss feed as I can’t find your e-mail subscription link or newsletter service. Do you’ve any? Kindly allow me recognise in order that I could subscribe. Thanks.

  7. Medicine Cabinets says:

    It¡¦s really a nice and helpful piece of info. I am satisfied that you just shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  8. pembayaran online says:

    I’m still learning from you, while I’m trying to reach my goals. I certainly love reading everything that is posted on your blog.Keep the aarticles coming. I enjoyed it!

  9. Latrisha Grodski says:

    Nice post. I learn one thing more difficult on totally different blogs everyday. It will all the time be stimulating to read content material from other writers and practice slightly something from their store. I’d favor to use some with the content material on my blog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll provide you with a link in your net blog. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Satvatove Institute says:

    Definitely, to place it specifically it does not have any reasons why this post probably should not acquire a large amount of enthusiasm because we’re all making an effort to realize our talents and provide expertise respectively.

  11. scottsdale recovery center says:

    Hi where there. My name is Sterling. For some time she’s been working that a dispatcher. His peers say it’s not good for him but he adores doing is often gardening regrettably he’s considering on setting up something replacement. Pennsylvania is where I’ve never fail to been not really.

  12. Accounting  says:

    Hey there, You have done an incredible job. I’ll definitely digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I’m sure they’ll be benefited from this site.

  13. Finance  says:

    Well I sincerely liked studying it. This post offered by you is very effective for proper planning.

  14. Business Intelligence  says:

    You really make it appear so easy with your presentation but I in finding this topic to be really something that I believe I’d by no means understand. It kind of feels too complex and very broad for me. I am taking a look forward in your next publish, I will try to get the cling of it!

  15. Decor  says:

    I¡¦m now not positive where you are getting your information, however great topic. I needs to spend some time finding out much more or figuring out more. Thanks for excellent information I was in search of this information for my mission.

  16. Braided Rugs  says:

    I precisely had to thank you so much once more. I am not sure what I would’ve carried out in the absence of the advice documented by you over my problem. It seemed to be the troublesome situation in my opinion, but viewing this specialized manner you dealt with the issue made me to cry for fulfillment. I will be happy for the information and then sincerely hope you recognize what a great job that you are getting into training many others by way of your web page. I know that you have never come across any of us.

  17. click now says:

    Good info. Lucky me I found your site by chance (stumbleupon). I have book-marked it for later!|

  18. modne buty says:

    I do not even know how I ended up here fodpdoss, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

  19. mieszkania poznan sprzedaz says:

    It’s actually a great and useful odpdoss piece of information. I’m happy that you shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  20. mattress reviews says:

    Blogger/Blog*Spot feeds shows the most recent (recently updated as the default setting) 25 headlines or what others call as post titles. My question is how can I increase/decrease the number of those headlines because I think they’re too many..

  21. ekstra zródla says:

    Howdy pdokkfif just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same results.

  22. ballistic fabrication says:

    They ring me Granville Rabinowitz it isn’t quite is never ever the name on a few birth qualification. New Mexico is even he’s always been living. One of the very preferred things on the internet for him or her is perform crochet as well she’s been doing thought for many years. Software developing is how he helps to make money also soon almost certainly be on his own.

  23. polecany artykul says:

    Thanks for your post podiuuss. One other thing is always that individual states in the United states of america have their own laws of which affect property owners, which makes it extremely tough for the the legislature to come up with a brand new set of rules concerning foreclosure on property owners. The problem is that every state features own legislation which may work in an unfavorable manner in terms of foreclosure procedures.

  24. This Site says:

    The only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting what you want.

  25. ballistic fabrication says:

    One thing they brought up about her though was that she hated orange soda, which is probably why she went to sleep by ten. Unbelievable when you think about it.

  26. Walter Pigg north myrtle beach says:

    This was brought up and discussed a quite a while ago and I suggested. Over the last few years though it became apparent that the total community was getting integrated with this project. Closing this will be ideal for everyone.

  27. marshal mize ford says:

    Hi there. Let me start simply by introducing this author, your girlfriend’s name is also Karissa Pollman and a husband would not like the software at every single one. His wife did not like it then the procedure he is doing but what exactly he tremendously likes finishing is cryptography but which is why he can’t cause it his own profession. He currently lives regarding Guam. I used to allow them to be underemployed but soon I in the morning a currency broker.

  28. Megan Fox link says:

    I want to start a personal blog.. an online journal. I have no idea which blog website to start it with.. . anything I should know about having a blog and who to have one with?.

  29. check says:

    This piece of writing presents clear idea in favor of the new visitors of blogging, that truly how to do blogging and site-building.|

  30. Silvana Heitner says:

    wonderful issues altogether, you just received a emblem new reader. What would you suggest about your post that you simply made some days ago? Any positive?

  31. Gaynelle Watkinson says:

    excellent points altogether, you simply gained a brand new reader. What would you recommend about your post that you made a few days ago? Any positive?

  32. Kurtis Staggs says:

    Great web site. A lot of helpful info here. I am sending it to several friends ans also sharing in delicious. And of course, thank you for your effort!

  33. Muriel Nease says:

    Hello there, You have performed an incredible job. I’ll certainly digg it and in my opinion recommend to my friends. I am confident they will be benefited from this website.

  34. Lesley Signor says:

    Hi I am so glad I found your site, I really found you by error, while I was searching on Yahoo for something else, Regardless I am here now and would just like to say kudos for a tremendous post and a all round exciting blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to read through it all at the moment but I have saved it and also added your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read a lot more, Please do keep up the excellent work.

  35. Kelley Gelineau says:

    I and my buddies came reviewing the good thoughts on your web site and so then came up with an awful suspicion I never thanked the site owner for those tips. All the people ended up for this reason happy to read them and have actually been taking advantage of them. I appreciate you for indeed being considerably considerate and also for settling on this sort of magnificent useful guides millions of individuals are really needing to discover. Our honest apologies for not saying thanks to earlier.

  36. Paris Podaras says:

    You made some nice points there. I did a search on the theme and found nearly all persons will go along with with your blog.

  37. Pedro Kleekamp says:

    Simply desire to say your article is as amazing. The clarity in your post is simply excellent and i can assume you’re an expert on this subject. Well with your permission let me to grab your RSS feed to keep updated with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please continue the gratifying work.

  38. Wiley Mysliwiec says:

    excellent post, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite experts of this sector don’t notice this. You must continue your writing. I’m sure, you have a great readers’ base already!

  39. Abraham Foute says:

    Have you ever considered about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and all. However think about if you added some great images or videos to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and videos, this blog could certainly be one of the best in its niche. Very good blog!

  40. Mel Ruthstrom says:

    This is really attention-grabbing, You are a very professional blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look ahead to in the hunt for more of your excellent post. Also, I’ve shared your web site in my social networks!

  41. Carl Ave says:

    Thanks for helping out, great information.

  42. Eddie Pellicone says:

    It is in reality a nice and useful piece of information. I am glad that you just shared this useful info with us. Please stay us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

  43. Marcia Guell says:

    Keep up the wonderful work , I read few articles on this site and I believe that your site is rattling interesting and has bands of superb information.

  44. ?????? ????????? ?????? ?? ????????? says:

    Nice post. I learn something more challenging on different blogs everyday. It will always be stimulating to read content from other writers and practice a little something from their store. I’d prefer to use some with the content on my blog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll give you a link on your web blog. Thanks for sharing.

  45. fwmajece majece says:

    By the way, you can use information from in order to achieve success. It will help you to start your career

  46. Celina says:

    I intend to blog about problems I do not want associating with my ‘work’ self. Just how do I choose a blog site host that has an excellent privacy document, to put it simply, I don’t want it to be very easy for people to compare my IP address or access my personal information. Also, having established the blog up, exactly how do you encourage high volume visitors?. I’ve only utilized LJ before and also I wish to try something a bit various, yet anonymity is the largest problem for me. Would certainly invite suggestions of excellent totally free blog hosts.

  47. Melina says:

    I’m looking for out what the most popular blog sites are when it involves news as well as views as well as cell phone stuff.

  48. Daniel Pensis says:

    It?s difficult to discover well-informed people on this subject, yet you sound like you recognize what you?re speaking about! Thanks

  49. Virginia says:

    CSI star Marg Helgenberger needs a divorce the 50-year-old star in the crime series CSI, in Alan Rosenberg Marg Helgenberger, has filed a divorce request using a Los Angeles court. Helgenberger filed for divorce in fellow TV actor Alan Rosenberg citing irreconcilable differences. She won’t get fooled again

  50. suba suba says:

    when it comes when it comes to tv fashion shows, i really love Project Runway because it shows some new talents in the fashion industry**

  51. detectives privados alcalá de guadeira says:

    detectives privados antequera

  52. Anthony Ghazi says:

    Hello there. I need to to inquire something…is this a wordpress weblog as we are thinking about changing across to WP. Furthermore did you make this template on your own? Many thanks.

  53. Nan Lindholm says:

    You need to join in a contest for just one of the greatest blogs online. I am going to suggest this page!

  54. ps4 games but says:

    Great post.

Leave a Reply

The name you want displayed with your comment.

Emails are not published with comments (i.e., everyone won't see it).

Your Website. This is optional.

SMITH Magazine

SMITH Magazine is a home for storytelling.
We believe everyone has a story, and everyone
should have a place to tell it.
We're the creators and home of the
Six-Word Memoir® project.