An intimate chronicle of the cruel and dehumanizing experience of incarceration.
At the age of 53, Schwartz (Angels Crest, 2004, etc.), a fiction writer, essayist, and writing teacher, began a 90-day sentence at a Los Angeles county jail for DUI. By the time she began her term, she had been sober for six months, following a devastating 414-day relapse of drinking and drugs. In “a chronic state of blackout,” her writing career tanked; her husband, teenage daughter, and most of her friends left her; twice, she nearly died from an overdose. Arrested four times, mostly for DUI, she crashed two cars and lost her license and most of her money. Ashamed and grateful that she never killed anyone when driving drunk, she was overcome with anger and self-pity despite realizing the pain that her alcoholism had inflicted on those closest to her. “Sometimes I would look at you when you were drunk and wish you were dead,” her daughter told her. For Schwartz, incarceration was both “soul crushing” and ultimately liberating. Jail was a leveler, where everyone—prostitutes, addicts, murderers, and women too poor to pay parking tickets—was reduced to a barcoded wristband. In jail, she reflects, “it was impossible to stereotype. Everything I thought I knew about what and who people supposedly were was forever stripped from me.” She forged close, empathetic friendships with her cellmates: obese Duckie, who took Schwartz under her wing; “tough, wise Wynell,” a prostitute who revealed a life story of poverty, violence, and fear. The author witnessed “the depravity of power” that pervades the criminal justice system. Besides her relationships with her fellow prisoners, she found solace in 22 books—fiction, poetry, and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous—that she read hungrily. From Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, she learned that “change is only possible through self-forgiveness,” and “sanity meant I had to stop blaming everyone for the fury of my addiction.”
An absorbing, emotionally raw memoir.