INTERVIEW: Bridget Kinsella, author of Visiting Life

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

By Piper Kerman

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.kinsella_bridget_cr_Lydia_Daniller.jpg

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.

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13 responses

  1. Leah says:

    I love when books show a person like me in a situation I thought I’d never be in. It’s like, maybe I could be that woman. How do I know I couldn’t love a prisoner? How do I know I couldn’t end up in jail? So much to think about and such a relatable writer…

  2. annette says:

    I just finished the book and felt a conection with Bridget and would like to contact Rory Mehan if I could. I too am now 43 and never had children so I fuly relate to what Bridget was going through. This book is well done, really captured me.

  3. Sue says:

    I was made aware of this book by my fiancée and I do plan on reading it.
    I was getting ready to marry an inmate - until I heard Bridget in an interview - now I am second guessing my decision after her description of women who fall in love with inmates. She described me and I didn’t like what I heard about myself.

  4. melinda says:

    I have read some of the book online. I am really interested in reading the whole book . I too am writing an inmate at Le.C.I. in Ohio. I sort of new him before we started writing only through a friend. We have been writing now for the last 10 months. He only has like 6 yrs to serve and he has almost served one. I too have been hurt by my ex husband who left me for another woman. I have found something in writing my inmate. I enjoy what we have shared to this point. And if something meaningful and real were to happen than I would be more than happy. I just never imagined me being involved with a prisoner. But he has made me happy just by writing and calling. I get to see him this week for the first time in prison. I am nervous.

  5. Christine says:

    People open your eyes!!! They are convicts. If you actually knew what the inside of a prison was like and the type of atmosphere they live in-you wouldn’t be so infatuated. They’re called CONS for a reason. This just seems like another way to justify actions that go against better judgement. It seems like she romanticizes about this type of relationship when all it really is, is an escape from reality. To me, this is not a healthy behaviour to promote as we should not escape or hide from our problems and especially not with convicts. Next thing you know, you’re smuggling drugs in-where do you draw the line? I would just stay away from that whole thing. I can definitely and positively say that I would NEVER get involved with a con. But hey, everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

  6. Lynn says:

    I found this book awesome and insightful. I too know an inmate and have been amazed by the relationship that has evolved. Though I do not visit him, we do write regularly. We are both ‘over 40′ and have realistic expectations. I have been trying to understand and express how much I have ‘received’ from my best friend of 4 years. I did not think of it as a healing, til I read this book. This friendship has been better for my soul than any doctor or prescription. Bridget said it when she talked about needing someone who understood pain. And needing that understanding to come from the same source as the devasting wound. Sadly, this is something I have never found with anyone else. While I do not deny that there are cons and scams out there, let’s not judge everyone by that sterotype. One of the wonders of life is the interesting twists and turns in your journey.

  7. Inmate Telephone Service says:

    I have not read the book yet, but it sounds like a good one. Isn’t funny how writing someone you don’t even know can turn into other things so much more profound. Like the love of a prison inmate.

  8. JLO1965 says:

    I’ve read the book. To me this woman was very judgemental at first about the woman who marry or are with men who are incarcerated. I did not enjoy the book. I felt she was toying with his emotions. After all they are a captive audience. She made out with him. Told him she loved him,but we will never cross the line of it being more. I found her condescending with a huge superiority complex. Like she was better than everone else. She made herself sound like this great beauty then I see her photo and I;m like. Well no wonder a gay man married you. You look like a man in drag. No big shocker there. This book did a disservice to the woman holding it down. That they are all older woman with younger men. That’s what she says in the book but not in this interview. Only part that I found interesting was the helping of female prisonsers and their children. As for this broken woman. She was lucky a prisoner gave her the time of day. But hey a lifer spending all his time with men. A woman that looks like a man not half bad.

  9. ntwana says:

    i have not read the book, but i can relate as i am currently in love and in a relationship with a prisoner in a south african maximum prison. we met six months ago through a wrong number.He is in the sixth year of his twenty year sentence and is allegible for parole next year.This man has tought me patience as i look forward to my next visit to him every month but it does not rule my life as i know he will be there waiting for me.

  10. Conanswifey says:

    My husband and I have been together since last june when he went in. We got married this year. Being a prisoners wife is no easy task but the man my husband has become in there I am more in love then ever. It’s tough we have still 2 years and about 9 months but we will make it. I commend the women who like myself that are involved with convicts. Stay strong and love the Lord he will get you thru it as well as ur and ur spouses love.

  11. katya says:

    I have really enjoyed reading the excerpt of Bridgets book.I totally found myself in her story and I can relate to everything she is saying!I have been writing to an inmate who is serving a life sentence in Texas for nearly a year,and this has been the best thing I have ever done in my life.My heart and soul connected with this man,his letters are heailing me.Just got back from a visit with him,and despite all the wires and fences and restrictions,we truly enjoyed ourselves on a different level.I am so happy to be able to experience such a great friendship and love.

  12. fwmajece majece says:

    By the way, information from will be useful to read for college students. Here you can find some tips

  13. suba suba says:

    pretty practical stuff, overall I consider this is worthy of a bookmark, thanks

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