Saturday, February 16, 2008

Visiting Life

I heard author Bridget Kinsella read from her memoir Visiting Life: Women Doing Time On the Outside at Lit Crawl last October, and finally read it over the last few days, during which time I couldn't put it down. I have been struggling over this post because I'm conflicted about the book, but I found it fascinating and moving.

Kinsella tells her story of falling in love with a prisoner at Pelican Bay State Prison, a man condemned to life for murder. They meet because a friend of Kinsella's, a creative writing teacher at the prison, gives her Rory's manuscript to read because she works in publishing. Through this relationship, which they both recognize as a "fantasy love" that will one day come to an end, she comes to terms with her divorce from a man who realized that he was gay, and with the reality that she will probably not have the children she has always longed for. Interspersed with her own story are the stories of several women visiting other men at the prison. At the end of the book, her interest in prison families leads her to become involved with a group called "Get on the Bus," which takes children on an annual Mother's Day visit to their incarcerated mothers.

Kinsella reveals many intimate thoughts and feelings about her past and her relationship with Rory, and Rory does the same. While I believe their love for each other is genuine, I also sense a degree of manipulation on both sides of the relationship, for what each wanted from the other. Of course we only know what Rory feels through Kinsella. As Kinsella describes it, over the course of their relationship, she regains her sense of self worth through Rory's love. The stories of the other women, all of whom, like Kinsella, developed their relationships with the men after they were imprisoned, are uniformly sad. They don't shed much light on Bridget and Rory's relationship, because theirs is different: both of them know that it won't last. It's hard for me to believe each got everything they said they got out of their relationship, while at the same time knowing that Kinsella would move on. But then, that's partly what the book is about, suspending judgment about the relationships women have with men behind bars.

The Get on the Bus chapter was completely heart-breaking. I could not help but weep. Kinsella says that there are 1.5 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent. Kinsella's involvement with Get on the Bus is another way for her to heal and find a sense of purpose. I was able to set aside my doubts about her relationship with Rory in admiration of her determination to make a child's life better.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I would really like to read this book. When I was in college, a friend of mine became pen-pals with a prisoner. They corresponded for a while then she began visiting him and they fell in love. Once she asked me to accompany her to the prison to meet one of his friends, a really bizarre double date. I will never forget it. Eventually she married the guy and they had two kids via conjugal visits. Much later, he got out of prison and everything sort of fell apart. She is, amazingly, doing well now in a 2nd marriage but that was a really intense period of life.