Handcuffed

An author recounts her relationship with a convicted murderer.

How was it possible that an award-winning writer, very much part of the Canadian literati, could be in a relationship with a convicted murderer for more than six years?

Diane Schoemperlen, author of twelve works of fiction and non-fiction, spends more than 300 pages in This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison and Other Complications asking and answering (at least in part) this question. The book, in its thoughtful style, has an obsessive momentum. It is a psychological rumination on that question while detailing, day by day, her relationship with Shane (name changed). It could be an exploitative exposé or written for a cause, but it is clear very quickly that the author is writing to work out for herself and the reader how she went so wrong so quickly and then got stuck.

Schoemperlen and Shane met at drop-in centre (Vinnie’s) for down-and-outs in Kingston while he was serving out the final years of his 30-year term at Collins Bay Minimum Institution (then called Frontenac). He was on an escorted pass (ETA in Corrections jargon) to work in Vinnie’s kitchen as a volunteer, where Schoemperlen was volunteering to distract from the pain of a recent, soured relationship. In walked Shane—a tall, handsome man decorated with tattoos. There was almost an instant attraction. The flirting started and moved quickly to avowals of love.

She knew he came from the prison at the beginning. She was, however, trying to practise “acceptance without judgment or assumption,” admitting in the next sentence that “my own better judgment should have told me not to get involved with him.”

And her friends all cautioned her against getting involved, some going as far as severing their relationship with her.

The signs of trouble appeared early: Shane exhibited barely controlled rage, as well as narcissistic thinking; they had little in common; and even if paroled, he would be under supervision for the rest of his life. He would find it very difficult to support himself, let alone her, and had two failed relationships behind him. Plus he was a murderer. His only relationship on the outside was with his mother, and it was a very difficult one. As Schoemperlen writes: “It would seem to be completely counterintuitive for a person like me to fall in love with a murderer.”

And so why did she? And what motivated him?

Anyone who has anything to do with prisons, as I have had for the past seven years as founder and director of Book Clubs for Inmates, knows how needy men and women inside can be. They are emotionally starved. Many try to develop relationships with men or women on the outside, and the chaplains are kept busy with prison marriages. My experience has been that most of these marriages or partnerships fail once the person is released and tries to reintegrate into society. The relationship on the outside bears no semblance to the tidy one that developed while in prison. Even long-term marriages are under incredible strain once the man or woman is released, and many just cannot manage to overcome the challenges.

Thus Shane was desperate for a relationship, and both were wounded people who were unable to sort out their own problems, let alone the relationship issues.

They were honest with each other about their pasts, but not about the things that really mattered, such as their low self-esteem (both), her need for privacy in order to write, and his paranoia and lack of independence. Despite all the guidance they got from Corrections Canada, a LifeLine buddy of Shane’s (an organization by lifers for lifers) and others, the real challenges of how they were going to live together after his release were never addressed. So they lived together for 49 days before the relationship detonated.

This might have been the end and a relief to her and the reader, except that they were both so damaged by the relationship that it took years for each to recover. The one good outcome from the adventure is perhaps that she eventually seeks therapy and is able to find support for her emotional issues with Shane, as well as all the events of her life that led to her affair with a convicted murderer.

Schoemperlen’s extreme frankness about her loneliness and suffering makes this book valuable. It is not merely a cautionary tale about the perils of having a relationship with an incarcerated man or woman, but a guide: “I thought about pain … perhaps this is the one thing we all have in common … the burden we are all labouring under … until maybe one day we cannot bear it anymore. Then we have to make a change or line up on the overpass.”

My sense of life’s journey is that the most difficult work any of us have to do is our inner work. None of us had perfect parents, supportive friendships, stable marriages or partnerships. However, if we do not heal from these pains through doing our inner work, helped perhaps by a therapist, loving friend or clergy person, we are destined to harm others as well as become more wounded ourselves.

The difficulty with getting involved with a lifer is that anyone serving a long sentence, perhaps anything over five years, becomes institutionalized, which leaves inmates utterly unprepared for reintegration. All decisions are made for the incarcerated, and they become accustomed to being surrounded by people all day long and never being alone unless they are in segregation, which has its own problems. They are constantly demeaned by guards, so lasting self-hatred is inculcated; even the most loving relationship, upon release, is unable to heal such deep-seated wounds. Our prisons, moreover, provide very little skills training: as the executive director of the John Howard Society said recently, what good is a certificate in anger management as a résumé credential once released? And finding housing or a job in this country for anyone with a criminal record is very difficult. In other words, for many of us involved in helping those in prison, we see two sentences being meted out by our current justice system: the one by the judge and then, upon release, the more lasting one by the community.

This is a gripping but ultimately very doleful memoir. It helps the reader, though, learn more about Corrections, and how difficult life is for the incarcerated, and those with criminal records in our communities. We should aim to improve the reintegration of these people so they are not doubly punished—and are not forced to return to a life of crime.