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Jailed Paperback – December 6, 2011
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Sherman draws on fifteen years as a mental health director for a county jail to examine the institution through the lens of individuals affected by their ties to a fictional California jail. The result is an unsparing and wide-ranging look at jailer and jailed alike. Sherman even includes the perspectives of spouses who never set foot inside yet can't escape its toxic shadow. Whether it's a Berkeley-educated guard, a drug-ravaged man with a genius IQ, or even a therapist who spends a single eight hour shift there, her jail negatively affects everyone. Harry, the cop turned prisoner, muses, "He wasn't worried about somebody recognizing him. It was more like he didn't want to recognize himself."
Jailed, though, is more than sociology disguised as fiction. Sherman builds setting through precise "been there" details like "food port interviews," metal stairs, and the dishes in the "servery." She also has an excellent ear. In "Third Strike," an addict mother refers to her child's "rose-petal ears" just before relinquishing custody. In "Arrested," a retired school teacher in for drunk driving tells a guard, "Hope your day goes well," as she slowly realizes that she'll spend the night behind bars instead of her condo in Rossmore. In "Jewel of Oakland," a bi-racial young woman touchingly summarizes the consequences of her mother's disastrous choice with "I don't see my mother, I don't want to."
Sherman delivers her take on the institution's dysfunctional politics without editorial comment. An inexperienced therapist becomes clinical director. An African-American psychologist, who understands the system well enough to get her "guys" the services they need, gets passed over. A guard who communicates with prisoners retires quietly, while a guard who has sex with an inmate starts to move up.
In general, Sherman's plotting is more about revealing characters than developing them. The best her characters can hope for is to retire or to minimize emotional damage. As a result, the stories go from bleak to really bleak. This is more a function of Sherman's commitment to accuracy than any shortcoming as a writer. Her characters can't rescue one another or their jail. They don't grow or develop; as long as they're in jail, they can't.
Jailed is a rare example of socially-conscious fiction that also has literary integrity. It does not polemicize. The stories only ask that we look at the institution as it really is. If emotional honesty is the starting block for great fiction, Sherman is off to a very clean start. Her book should appeal to both those who work in or have an interest in our criminal justice system and to those who simply want to know the hearts of those inside it.
(this review first appeared at primenumbermagazine.com)
Myra Sherman, whom I had the pleasure to meet in a Tin House summer workshop led by Dorothy Allison many years ago, is a petite woman, so petite it's hard to imagine her ever being in such an authoritative position as some of the characters in these stories. However, not only does her eloquent and emotionally truthful prose intimate how real her fiction is, but as her bio states, Sherman got her Master's in Social Welfare at Berkeley and is a licensed clinical social worker. "She has worked as the Director of Mental Health in a San Francisco Bay area county jail and as a therapist specializing in patients at risk for suicide, homeless substance abusers, and mentally disordered sex offenders. Her writing is inspired by her clinical work and gives voice to the marginalized and forgotten."
In "The Jewel of Oakland," a female inmate has just been discharged. "I was released to the jail lobby, startled into sudden freedom," Lucinda tells us. But it is not freedom she experiences. She is the adopted daughter of a well-to-do art history professor, a woman who thinks taking on the bi-racial infant Lucinda makes her seem socially admirable. Lucinda has no idea what to do with herself once released and goes immediately to a coffee shop for a macchiato, where she meets Gus, a man too old and unattractive for her. Anything, however, is better than going home to her mother, who is in more denial than Lucinda herself. They have conversations that run like this:
"You don't really use amphetamines."
"Yes, I do."
And an example of when her mother comes to the hospital after one of Lucinda's many suicide attempts:
I shrug. "Tell me about my birth parents," I say.
She flushes slightly. She coughs quietly. "Why now?" she asks.
Silently I hold out my white bandage-wrapped left arm.
"I don't understand," she says.
"You don't want to," I say.
She shakes her head dismissively.
"I've never been the daughter you wanted," I say.
"No. You're wrong," she says.
"Your dirty looks . . ."
"Guilty looks . . ."
Despite her self-hatred, her proclivity towards meth, Lucinda is an artist. Reading the story, we route for her to make it.
In another story, "Violet and Jay," Violet is proud of Jay when he comes home after being considered for and then getting the job of "Fanklin County's new jail psychiatrist." She feels the job is noble, but she's also envious. She's an artist who makes "urban artifact sculptures of salvaged metal embellished with semi-precious stones," but they are "gathering dust, cluttering the loft with art no one wanted." She's her family's eccentric, loves to wear her trademark cape, though Jay calls it "stained and shredding. You look like a medieval street person."
When Jay comes home from this interview, he's "revved up. Pacing the length of the loft and smoking a joint, he stripped to red silk briefs, strewing charcoal Armani on the sand cork floor. He snorted from excitement. His face was flushed. He kept cracking his knuckles. I found his self-congratulatory swaggering repulsive."
The reader finds out soon enough that life on the outside sometimes isn't any better than life on the inside. Jay is late for his job every day, drinks heavily when he's at home and boasts about what a great psychiatrist he is and how much the jail needs him. He becomes increasingly erratic, egomaniacal, and moody when he talks endlessly about what happened at work each day and how great he is, so much so that sometimes she can't understand what he's saying. Finally he goes too far. Whether or not Violet and Jay will survive their own kind of jail is high drama.
Sherman's stories are arresting. The language is beautiful. You feel like a peeping tom discovering what really goes on in jails and who those people really are who say they're helping inmates. Rush out and buy this book!
"The doors lock. People feel desperate and trapped. The jail conquers and changes everyone inside. Explore the intense milieu of jail life with stories narrated by inmates, deputies, mental health workers and relatives."
That's a very accurate description of this excellent collection. These stories are real, sometimes scary and usually heartbreaking.
Sherman lets her characters tell their story - there is no authorial intrusion telling us what we should believe or what should outrage us. Incarceration is a dehumanizing process for all involved, but Sherman reminds us that the system is not about rules and regulations and jail cells - it's about people.