Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Patricia McConnel

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On her Goodreads page, Patricia McConnel describes her life arc as “vagrant, drug mule, and dilettante hooker to award-winning author in a mere forty years.”

She writes boldly and shoots straight. I loved her book Sing Soft, Sing Loud, which contains short stories of prison and survival among hard-living women, with a young narrator who thinks, observes, and feels through the scrabble. Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Carolyn See called Sing Soft, Sing Loud: “Extraordinary, heartbreaking….The tales here range from grizzly to harrowing and back again….But there is some good news. You can write your way through the bars, through space, through time.”

McConnel is in her eighties now and misses sex, can’t hear so well over the phone, and is still winning fans. I wanted to talk to her about prison in the 1950s, where her own experiences ended and her fiction began, and how she’s carried forward—into her golden years—all these vivid people she’s been.

The conversation below is from our ongoing email exchange.

***

The Rumpus: Of all the varied things you’ve done in your life, do you still see yourself as an ex-con? Does that experience and identity still stand out in the grand scheme?

Patricia McConnel: By the way, my real name is Toni. I used Patricia on my book for reasons that now seem dumb to me, and I got stuck with that. You can continue to call me Patricia if you wish, or switch to Toni, if you can do so with minimal brain damage.

It’s nice to connect to another “ex-con.” Prison experience still puts distance between me and any person who hasn’t been there, done that. Whether the distance is real or imagined doesn’t matter. I feel the separation, the lack of connection, always there in the background. Like Piper Kerman, I’m ever-so-conscious of being white and middle-class-looking, though unlike Kerman, I’m actually a lowlife. On the street at fifteen and also in jail for the first time at that age, and off and on the street until my mid-twenties. People think I’m educated because I talk and write well, but the fact is I never finished high school. I’ve read a lot, is all. The fact that educated white women automatically assume that we have similar backgrounds annoys me. We don’t. I feel like I’m in a certain kind of drag.

Rumpus: As you said, you’re white and speak well. And you’re in your eighties, if I’ve got it right, so people might not be inclined to see you as a “lowlife.” You can sneak up on ’em.

McConnel: What I can say now is that sneaking up on people is a major delight in my old age, but it always has been. A desire, even a need, to shock.

I don’t believe anyone can go through the prison experience without being changed by it. The experience becomes part of your identity forever, don’t you think? It can’t be eradicated any more than you can eradicate your education, the influence of and rebellion against your parents, or the night you gave away your virginity. You and Neil White both commented to the effect that ultimately you benefitted from the prison experience and didn’t regret it, in spite of the painfulness of it. I was stunned by that because in my case, I was already a wreck when I went in, and prison nearly destroyed what little was left of me. I was worse when I came out than I was when I went in, and was not positively changed in any way. Any constructive changes I have gone through in the ensuing decades have been in spite of the experience, not because of it.

Rumpus: How long were you in prison? Why, when, where?

McConnel: From the indictment: “Failing to declare, for the purpose of having import duty imposed, 6.5 ounces of heroin.” Huh? I have wondered ever since if I had declared the heroin and paid import duty, would I have been home free?

I was in prison [from] 1951-1953, when I was in my early twenties, two years of a two-to-ten-year sentence in the Federal Penitentiary for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. At the time, Alderson was one of only two federal institutions for women in the entire country. I was in the building the prisoners called “High Power,” because it was where they put women convicted of more serious crimes, like treason. Although I was simply what today would be called a “mule”—the bottom of the food chain in the drug biz—the federal system treated me from beginning to end like a major criminal, and I still don’t know why, other than that in those days, 6.5 ounces of heroin was a big load. Ludicrous by today’s standards, when coke, heroin, and weed are shipped across the border by the ton.

Rumpus: Can you tell me about some of the other women you met in Alderson?

McConnel: You’re going to love this: Tokyo Rose (Iva D’Aquino), Axis Sally (Mildred Sisk), the Puerto Rican revolutionary Blanca Torresola, and two victims of the McCarthy-era Communist purge all were in that building. They were originally in the book, but my agent talked me into removing them because she thought the book otherwise was “timeless”; she was right about that—hardly anything in the jails and prison system has changed since then—but she was wrong to want to preserve the timeless element at the cost of those mentions. Memoirs were not yet a big thing when the book was first published in 1989. Today those women are of historical interest, as well as the differences in the drug trade.

Rumpus: Yeah, those characters would have enhanced the book, I bet. Prison’s collections of characters are one of the biggest points of interest—for both fellow inmate and outside audience—the rich, varied fish that get pulled into that wide net.

When I was on trial in Korea, they were chasing O.J. around Los Angeles. I was reading about his case as mine was unfolding. I thought about writing about him, but didn’t like the pop culture note it sounded in my story. Left it out. So I can understand your agent’s thinking, though like you, I disagree in the case of your story, concerning these notorious women you were actually held with. They were considered traitors and revolutionaries. How did you feel being in their company? Did you get to mix with them much?

McConnel: I think I felt I was out of my league. We lived in a dormitory, much like a college dormitory, and had communal showers, a “day room” where we could socialize, play cards, and listen to a radio, and ate our meals in a dining room with four or five women to a table. Axis Sally was at my table. But I didn’t work with them, so I only saw them at meals and in the evenings while rooms were unlocked and we could visit.

About them individually: Iva D’Aquino was railroaded. There were a lot of sacrificial lambs in the political climate of those days. “Tokyo Rose” was not one person but a number of different women, all known as Tokyo Rose. Iva never denied making broadcasts. She claimed she did so under some kind of threat, the specifics of which I no longer remember, but they had her lover in custody, so I imagine the threats had to do with his welfare, perhaps to torture him. But Iva claimed that she didn’t make the broadcasts that they said she made. All the facts are not known. When Iva died, the real story died with her. In Alderson, she had the room right next to mine, and someone on the prison staff would come in at night after lockup and enter Iva’s room. I could hear them talking through the wall, but couldn’t make out what they said.

Blanca Torresola’s room was several doors down from mine. She struck me as not being very bright. I was surprised to read, years later, about her leadership roles in Puerto Rico’s fight for independence. I think she was used as a front by the people who were really running the operation. But that’s an uninformed opinion, based only on my impression that poor Blanca didn’t have the intelligence to lead any sort of movement and so must have been a scapegoat, as well as a figurehead. She was passionate about independence for Puerto Rico, though; the last words she said to me as I was leaving were—her fist raised—“Fight, fight, fight for Puerto Rico!”

Mildred Sisk’s room was across the hall from me. She was extremely affected, the kind of affectation that betrays both ignorance and low self-esteem. Again, only my opinion, perhaps not accurate. She once told me a story about how an Austrian prince tried to seduce her. It seemed to me a pathetic attempt to impress me, that she hung out with royalty and that she had been a classy, as well as a sexy babe in her day. She ended her days teaching children somewhere.

Elizabeth G. Flynn was a high-profile Communist who has been almost forgotten now. A McCarthy-era scapegoat. She spent Sunday afternoons in the day room knitting and listening to a classical music concert on the only radio in the building. No TV. In those years, TVs were just beginning to infiltrate this culture. Not many people had them yet and certainly not the prisons.

All these women were scapegoats, every one of them. Sometimes I think I may have been the only woman in High Power who was actually guilty of the crime for which I had been convicted. A distinction to be proud of, don’t you think?

Rumpus: I do. That is a distinction. I think it’s also a psychic plus. There was something calmer and resolved in knowing you’re guilty and there’s no waffling or bullshit about it. You’re doing the time they gave you for what you did. I think that must be easier, in a way, on the soul—that’s how I often saw it.

I’m talking about the old Shawshank joke about no guilty men in prison, how so many convicts say they didn’t do it. But of course, someone who is legitimately innocent and has been scapegoated or railroaded, like some of those high-profile women at Alderson with you—man, that is a bitter fate. I’ve always thought that if it were me, innocent and imprisoned, I wouldn’t rest. I’d go berserk, fighting it every second.

I’ll come back to your characters Iva, Blanca, Elizabeth; amazing anecdotes. You strike me as an observant writer, the way you examine your characters in detail (an observant person first, translated into the way you write).

You said prison messed you up. I’m sure you had dark nights of the soul in there. How old were you in Alderson? And do you still see traces of it in your behavior?

McConnel: I’m not sure if this matters at all to readers in general, but since you yourself are the author of a memoir about prison, you might be interested in to what degree I invented in Sing Soft, Sing Loud. The reason I called this an autobiographical novel is because I did invent, sometimes because I didn’t remember details, but also because, structurally, I telescoped time to give things a better story flow.

 

All the stories, however, are based closely on things that either happened to me or that I witnessed. The two stories that are literal accounts with virtually no fictionalizing are the title story “Sing Soft, Sing Loud,” and the final story, “The End.” The only invention in those stories are the dialogues, because of course, so many years later I no longer remembered word for word what was said, however I did remember the gist of things very well.

Iva and Toni, the two main characters in the book, are both composite characters, partly me and partly extracted from women I knew. My friends in prison were mostly women more like myself: not historical figures who I did not relate to as peers, but hookers and addicts, and in one case, a high-class madam—federal felons because, at that time, and I don’t know if this is still the case, but if you crossed a state line in the commission of your crime, it became a federal offense. Odd.

Rumpus: I was going to ask you about these things: your choice of the name Iva for one of your narrators, and about a reader’s—certainly this reader’s—natural inclination to want to know what parts are your personal experiences and which parts are invented. For example, the black man to be executed, that Millie recounts singing for in “The Virgin Ear,” him giving her cigarettes: where is that from?

McConnel: My character Iva was named after Iva D’Aquino. The real Iva had a façade of toughness, but even as stupid as I was in those days, I perceived that the toughness was a cover-up for vulnerability. That is how I see my character Iva and that’s why I named her after the real Iva. Otherwise, though, Iva of Sing Soft, Sing Loud resembles Iva D’Aquino in no other particular, and is much more an aspect of myself than anyone else. (By the way, I am planning a new print edition of Sing Soft, Sing Loud, and it will include notes/backstory covering these kinds of things.)

Regarding Millie: she is a totally invented character representing a “type” I saw often in jails—when sober, a sweet, mild-mannered middle-aged woman who, when drunk, turned into a shrieking psychotic. You will see Millie in this mode as you get further into the book. Her story of singing for cigarettes in the El Paso County Jail is actually my own story. I was fifteen at the time.

I started crying when I wrote that last sentence. You see, I don’t feel the pain every day, at least not consciously, but it comes back when memories rise to consciousness. I don’t form emotional scar tissue, never have. All wounds have, at best, light scabs that, when picked at by mentioning them, start to bleed again. I am told that this is what makes me a case study for complex PTSD. Whatever, that’s the way it is.

Rumpus: “Shit-mouth coyote,” “turkey-twats,” “maggot-cunt hooker,” “knee-walking lush”—the mouth on Iva. You had me at the first epithet. Love this phrasing in your stories. These were actual insults of the time, I’m guessing (hoping), or did you mine your own fire for these?

McConnel: No, entirely original with Iva! I’m glad you mentioned the language because I forgot to tell you something—”The Difference It Makes Where You Sit,” where Iva rebels against being moved to a different cellblock, is based on an incident I witnessed very early in my three months awaiting trial in the San Diego City Jail. I was locked down 24/7, but looking out through the bars of my second-tier cell, I could see a lot of what was going on. One day I heard a woman screaming the filthiest stream of curses I ever heard, before or since. (I wish I could remember them, as I have frequent need of such invective.) At first I couldn’t see her, but then three male police officers appeared at the top of the stairs struggling to hold onto a woman who could not have weighed more than one hundred pounds, but who was giving them one helluva time to hold onto her, as they tried to take her down the stairs. Wherever it was they were trying to take her, she was determined not to go. Two things struck me about her: the futility of her resistance, and her eyes, which were huge and an electric blue I have never seen before or since.

The memory of that haunted me for a long time, mainly because I couldn’t figure out why she was so determined not to go wherever they were trying to take her. “The Difference It Makes Where You Sit” was an attempt to imagine that explanation, but I’m sure it doesn’t even come close. What it does do, however, is show how very small things become monumentally important in such unnatural circumstances.

Anyway, it was in honor of that young woman that I decided to give Iva a filthy mouth. I had more fun thinking up invectives for her than with any other part of the book. My personal favorite is “turkey twat.” I can’t even begin to tell you how I came up with that one. It’s from my innermost me.

After I had been to trial, I was no longer in isolation. The tiny window through which I could see the tips of the palm branches was real, and I have found a rare photograph of the San Diego City Jail in which that tree is visible, huge by the time the photo was taken. And the part that is my own personal experience is that I did in fact go sit on the ramp with my legs in that small patch of sunlight that came through that window in the morning. I actually don’t know if the other tank had a window or not—I think it probably did, but for this story I had to pretend it didn’t, to give Iva a reason for refusing to go.

***

McConnel: I found the Banged Up Abroad series on YouTube, the episode where you narrate a docudrama based on your book. What you describe so well—the emotions you were feeling and especially the mindless compulsion to go ahead—are so right on! So familiar, it gave me the spooks. They did a great job of creating suspense, perhaps a little too much for my taste, but overall a good job. Can’t believe how it brought back dread and despair for me. Je-sus.

Rumpus: Right, you with that heroin in your bra trying to cross from Mexico back into the U.S. I’ll never willingly give myself that dread again. Fuck, it’s terrible. National Geographic Channel has a hit series called Locked Up Abroad. Banged Up is the British title. They’re heavy on the crime and capture, stretching out that tension. It’s well done, though, for what it is.

Many of the episodes are compelling (vivid, recreated scenes of the past mixed with reflections from the narrator in the present: really a classic memoir template). I always think mine is tame in comparison. That was 2008, when I did that. So I was thirty-eight, well past the twenty-seven I was when I came home from Korea.

Bringing me to this question for you: Sing Soft, Sing Loud was first published in ’89, right? More than thirty years after your prison experiences. Were these stories marinating all that time, or were you drafting them through the years?

McConnel: My god, thirty-eight? You look twenty-something in the video.

I started writing the stories sometime in the mid-’60s. My then-husband regarded my prison past as a dirty secret and never asked me one single question about it. But what I had experienced and witnessed was eating at me and I needed to “tell somebody.” I had a naïve idea that if I could tell the story, people would be outraged and do something about conditions in the jails. (How deluded can you get?) Also, I could not forget about the women I did time with. As I mentioned in the intro to Creativity Held Captive: Guidelines for Working with Artists in Prisons, I felt like I was sitting on a capped volcano.

The volcano eventually erupted, and I wrote the story “Sing Soft, Sing Loud” in about two hours one afternoon, shaking and in a cold sweat. It’s about an incident I witnessed, where a jail guard threw scalding water with lye in it on a prisoner because she would not stop singing. I asked my husband to read it, hoping for I don’t know what, and the first thing he said was, “Who would want to read something like this?” When I told him that the story was true, he said, “I don’t believe that.” I said, “Are you calling me a liar?” He said, “No, but I don’t believe that happened.” That was the last conversation we had about my dirty past.

I continued writing stories and sent them out, but no one would publish them. But I couldn’t give up on them. At long last, in the early ’80s, one of the stories won first prize in a writing contest, and a couple of years later I received my first fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts based on this work.

Rumpus: I’m glad you didn’t give up on them, these stories of yours, and his loss that your husband wasn’t supportive of your writing or interested in your experiences. In Sing Soft, Sing Loud, there is a timeless quality to these vignettes of characters that your narrators observe so well: the crazed, rich wife who tried to shoot her husband; the guard Rupert, who reminds Iva of a teacher she once had before she dropped out of school; the man-to-be-executed that hears Millie singing and gives her cigarettes in “The Virgin Ear.” At the same time, there is the feel of that former era—Cool Hand Luke sort of prison blues. There’s a power in these stories, Toni. I’m a fan. The quiet yet profound interactions of these tough souls. The moments resonate, certainly for me. And two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships later.

You’ve said that before your book was published, magazines would not publish your work, but in later years you have had serious validation: your story “The Aviarian” selected as one of PEN’s ten best short stories of 1984; reading at the Library of Congress, where you met Joyce Carol Oates and others; the fellowships; not to mention this crowning here, as a Literary Ex-Con! You’ve done some seriously hard living in your time, but you seem to have beaten it all. I know you said prison was not beneficial to you, but has the writing about it softened those pains?

McConnel: Oh shit, it’s hard to figure out how to answer this. The question, at face value, sounds simpler than it really is. You, too, appear to have “beaten it all”—you’ve gone on to publish a book with a major publisher, you are teaching writing in two different venues, and above all, you’ve stayed out of prison for more than a decade. But tell me, Cullen, can you think about that breakdown in your early days in the Korean prison, without the pain of it coming back on you? Or think about the day you got busted, without your stomach clenching with dread, without cringing at the stupidity of it all and the mortification of having so gravely endangered Rocket? In the National Geographic video, you are on the edge of tears near the end when you mention your mom. Surely that anguish comes back on you sometimes? Maybe all those pains have been softened now with writing about it and the passage of time, but they’re still there, aren’t they? So what does “softened” mean? I don’t know.

However, both the process of writing the book and then having it published by what was at the time a prestigious house, Atheneum Books (they published James Baldwin and several Pulitzer Prize winners), certainly did have important effects on me.

“The End” is one of two stories that are almost entirely factual. I wrote that story in a fever after receiving my first NEA grant, the same kind of eruption that gave me the title story, “Sing Soft, Sing Loud,” many years before. Validation from the NEA, after so many years of rejection, gave me the courage to risk that depth of self-revelation—the degradation of being dragged through bars in Tijuana to pick up men, so Leon could watch them fuck me. Why did I want to do that? Because I had the naïve hope that reading my story might save at least one young woman from ever having to go through that kind of hell. I was lucky enough to survive, but most don’t. What I didn’t intend, and one of the most pleasant surprises as a result of publishing that book, is that now it’s almost impossible to embarrass me. When you have laid something like that on the table, you have no more secrets and all relationships start on what-you-see-is-what-you-get terms.

Another thing the book did for me is that it gave me a sense of self that I had never had in my entire life. Not just Sing Soft, Sing Loud, but writing and publishing, in general, gave me that. My published works are concrete evidence that I exist. Irrational as it seems (and is), I have been through very bad periods of feeling like I don’t exist. Strange, isn’t it? But in recent years I have discovered that this is one of the hallmarks of complex PTSD. So although it’s irrational, it’s common for people like me.

Writing the book was also cathartic. I couldn’t stand living in a society that admires the emperor’s new clothes, when I see so clearly that he is naked. I felt compelled to blow the whistle on the penal system, under the delusion that doing so might result in some change, or at least save a few women from the same fate. Eternally naïve, that’s me. Never mind; whistleblowers are a brother/sisterhood I’m proud to belong to. Bruce Springsteen has said that what he writes about in his songs is the difference between the American Dream and the American Reality: precisely.

Rumpus: To be beyond embarrassment, as you describe it—what a powerful place. There was a Nietzsche line that my Colombian buddy and I hung onto: something about the mark of true freedom being when you’re no longer ashamed in front of yourself. I’m sure your stories have saved people. And they are refined testaments to the fact that you certainly do exist. You’ve given us a compelling record.

***

McConnel: I am off now to my local health club, purportedly to work out with weights but actually to lust after muscled, young men fifty years my junior. At eighty-one, health club-lusting is as close as I’ll ever come to getting laid again. The loss of a sexual life is one of the worst things about getting really old. The worst thing.

Rumpus: I like the spirit! It’s funny and yet, at the same time, not funny at all. There are candid sexual moments in your stories, in fact: rough blow jobs; a girl’s first orgasm, courtesy of Leon’s lusty mouth. And I think you write those without any self-consciousness. It’s plainspoken and dealt with as a natural part of things. There’s even a moment in “Blind Corner,” I think it is, where Toni is talking about how she enjoyed making love to two or three men at once. Right there I started wondering, Now is this her character speaking or is this autobiographical? Hmm.

McConnel: I think I won’t answer that right now because it’s more delicious to leave you wondering.

And I have a question for you: do you think that all the hash-smoking you did before your arrest had anything to do with the poor decisions you made leading to your arrest? I was addicted to amphetamines at the time I got busted, but I tend to think I was on a determined, self-destruct course that had little to do with the effect of Benzedrine. I’m not entirely sure about that, though. Benzedrine does give you heightened confidence. Does it impair judgment? That’s the part I’m not sure of. Probably does, because if you’re overconfident, then that’s related to decision-making, n’est pas?

But anyway, what part do you think smoking hash had in how things played out?

Rumpus: Definitely played a part. If I hadn’t been smoking it, I certainly wouldn’t have been trying to move kilos of it around. Beyond the potential money, there was the attraction to the product itself. But like you said, I can see traits in myself, quite independent of whether I’m high or not, that led me down that road. It was still me. And I’m glad they caught me, honestly. I like myself better for having been stopped and made to experience something so radical—in the end, something much more rewarding to me than pulling off a drug run.

McConnel: I hear you.

Rumpus: Do you ever wonder what became of the real-life Leon, your drug dealer/pimp boyfriend from that other life?

McConnel: No, because there is nothing to wonder about. He was what they call a sociopath, and no doubt died violently in Tijuana’s underbelly. But every once in a while, I wonder about the black guy who offered to get me out of there. He would be very old, or dead by now. If I had gone with him, would my life have turned out differently? I doubt it. He might well have been a pimp himself, you know, shopping for new girls. But I kinda don’t think so.

Rumpus: Interesting. Yeah, that is really an astounding scene. “The End” is a difficult and sad story: to see Toni’s final thread break, as you describe it, and give herself up, drunk and broken, to let those two strangers have sex with her at Leon’s bidding. And then the one man, while on top of her, whispering to her that he could rescue her, get her out of there. Stark and compelling. You were lucky to have made it out.

I don’t think the internal monologues are overdone. If anything, as a reader, I’d like to hear more reflections from the narrator on the pregnancy back East that precipitates her leaving her father’s care, his support, the chance at college, a different life. She leaves all that for a real hell-scare. I know she takes herself to task for fucking up, for being a fuck-up. But as you acknowledge in the afterward, there was some choice in it. That’s the difficult and thorny part. None of this to judge those decisions, mind you. I admire you. I was rooting for that girl in the stories. You’ve been there and back. You’ve suffered and seen.

McConnel: Yes, I think you’re right. There’s a lot left out, and I don’t know why neither my editor at Atheneum, nor my agent pushed me to write it. The whole experience of publishing that book was very strange—they were strange and I was strange. A whole other story. I have been thinking that I might actually add that story to the new edition. The problem for me is that I don’t really want to “go there.” I’ve moved on, and am much more interested in the book Old Woman Walking and my memoir of early years broke and often homeless. The only reason I’m considering a new edition at all is that the book continues to sell to women’s studies programs and sometimes other types of courses. Academia paid attention, even if nobody else did.

And you’re so right about choice. One of the principle things life has taught me is that we always have a choice. When we say we “can’t,” we usually mean we’re just not willing to pay the price. That was a big thing for me to realize as the reason I so often kept myself stuck: just wasn’t willing to pay the price of getting out.

Rumpus: I saw you listed Jean Harris’s books on prison as recommended reading in the afterward to Sing Soft, Sing Loud. What was it about her prison writing that resonated for you?

McConnel: I no longer remember much about her book. There have been other books by women I called “tourists”—women who were not from “The Life,” but who were either political prisoners or who committed one desperate act that was not representative of how they lived their lives, like Jean Harris. Piper Kerman also falls in that category. Mine is still the only one I know of by a woman much more typical of women prisoners: one who lived by choice in the crime counterculture for a prolonged period of time.

Rumpus: Did you tune the story in, back in 2005, when Martha Stewart was sent to Alderson after her conviction?

McConnel: I remember being much amused, but wasn’t interested enough to read much about it. Another “tourist.”

 

Rumpus: In Creativity Held Captive, which is persuasive and full of heart, you talk about the healing power of books, how Kafka taught you the madness of society could be turned into art, and Ken Kesey, in One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest, that there is dignity in not giving in to that madness. Were you reading and writing when you were in prison?

McConnel: The only thing I remember writing in prison is a couple of poems for an inmate magazine they did once a year. One was in Spanish, for Leon, on the absurd hope that he would see the magazine in the prison he was in (I wasn’t allowed to write to him, of course). As for reading, the only thing I remember reading was Gargantua and Pantagruel, written in the 16th Century. How I landed on that book, I have no idea. I’m sure I read other things, but I don’t remember them.

Rumpus: I love your bold statement that you’ve found prisoners to be among “the brightest and most rewarding people to teach,” that many of them are starved, in fact. You’ve done readings and taught writing workshops in jails and prisons in five states. What’s it like to go back?

McConnel: Harrowing. There’s always an irrational fear that they won’t let me out again. And you never know what you’re going to encounter, like this experience with a warden of a small prison in Wyoming: he told me his staff lived in exactly the same circumstances as prisoners. Astonished, I said, “Except they are here by choice and can leave when they want to, they get paid for their time, they don’t get locked in isolation, they can go where and do what they want, and they go home at night to their families and another life.” We were standing in a corridor at the time. He leaned forward, threateningly close, fixed his narrowed, glittering eyes on mine, and with a melodramatic tone, he said, “You don’t know what it’s like to walk down a unit, alone with two hundred prisoners, with nothing but a call box on your hip.” I started to respond with a comment on the absurdity of this remark, but something dangerous in his expression triggered my old prisoner’s red-alert button: keep your mouth shut if you want to survive. He sensed that switch go off in me and went on to say, “I have had to witness executions. It’s me that has to leave that room and live with the experience.” His implication was clear: the prisoners were luckier because they were dead and couldn’t remember their executions.

I’ve written about such things in Creativity Held Captive. But the rewards of going back far outweigh the negatives. Prisoners are incredibly appreciative and responsive.

Rumpus: Do you still write about prison ever, or law and order themes?

McConnel: Not at all about prison or law and order themes. One moves on. I have a blog, Old Woman Walking, which is also the title of a book in progress, portions of which will be published on the blog. That book is about aging and death, drawing parallels between my own experience of aging (which is extremely different from expectations raised by all the “rah rah! hooray!” books being published on the glories of old age), and the death of the biosphere (climate change and prolonged extreme drought here in the Southwest), which I witness as I hike in the high-altitude forests that surround my home, and in the red rock deserts at lower altitudes, such as southeastern Utah where I made my home for thirteen years. I have another memoir planned that covers the years from the age of fifteen, when I first left home to hitchhike and ride a freight across the country, to just before I got involved with Tuffy, my first pusher boyfriend—a long period of struggles to survive, a portrait of the realities of that period.

Rumpus: Do you ever do anything illegal nowadays?

McConnel: Of course. I keep my hand in… Do you?

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Photograph of a low-security federal prison © by Tom Benitez.


Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum's Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy. He teaches The Dark Side: Crime and Punishment in Literature at New York University. More from this author →