When I got to death row in ’99, I was in a contentious relationship with a girl I loved and dated before coming to prison. Distance, attitude, distrust and circumstance made communicating impossible. We were too immature to understand a significant part of our relationship involved sex, and with no way to give each other the physical comfort we craved, hope for a future together disappeared. My thoughts were poisoned with midnight executions and hers were for moving on. My life had ended, not hers.
I didn’t stop having a need for a woman because the State sentenced me to death or my girlfriend took off. In those days pornography was readily available so I immersed my fantasies there. The women in these images were as unrealistic and unattainable as they were in the free world and this, at least, was something with which I could identify.
Trying to gain satisfaction from a picture and going through the mental gymnastics of what the ghosts of memory tell you existed at one time is an empty feeling. Like a blighted field where nothing grows no matter what used to be, feeling and wishing and dreaming doesn’t put flesh on bones, and aching for the lushness of life means nothing. In the end it is only a clearing. Forsaken and barren.
Shortly after my girlfriend left I got involved with an older woman I knew from the free world. It was flattering to be young and attractive to a mature woman despite everything about a death sentence screaming the exact opposite. Our relationship was based on a desire to love and be loved, but with no real understanding or ability to carry it out. Because there were limitations to showing our affection this eroded the connection we had, making desire a desperate thing corrupted by a golden ideal in a wasteland where I existed and she dabbled. Soon enough she figured out what the other girl did – there was nothing I could do to meet their needs. When the Dear John letter came in the mail I smiled and threw it in the trash. I’d been expecting it, our relationship was a sexualized dream that would never come true. She was the one who needed waking.
Time passed and this hard attitude remained. I grew to hate prisoners who begged the attention of female staff like dogs at the table. Anything for a scrap or scratch behind the ears. It was especially bad when after an execution you might see one off to the side discussing some inane bit of cultural trivia all for a grin, wink or whiff of perfume. And when these prisoners were confronted about fraternizing with our killers? “Ah man, she don’t agree with the death penalty. She alright.” There was always this belief that, with the right amount of game, the sexualized dream would become a reality. Maybe there were a few who actually accomplished such a feat, but for most it was tail wagging and hand licking.
Stockholm syndrome was not a term I knew at the time, but when I grew to understand it, common sense never had a better champion. Of course it was easy to identify with female captors, to feel sympathy and attraction for them when they were a missing link to another life even if there was no real fulfillment. This in-between state of always wanting and never getting leaves many men bitter and hungry. From one side of the mouth spews misogynistic vitriol, but from the other pours their desire for a woman, crocodile eyes tracking the movement of anyone with breasts. There is no shame or any sense that their behavior is out of the ordinary because prison is a deviant place. It almost seems inevitable something twisted rushes to fill the emptiness where intimacy with the opposite sex should exist.
For a time I failed to acknowledge my hatred came from jealousy that certain others were favored, even if it was only passing attention from a guard. Most of what I despised were the degrading circumstances of prison, the reminder we’re considered “less than” and undeserving of basic biological needs, let alone intimacy with a woman. The incarceral experience punishes in unimaginable ways, without exception, and division from female companionship or consideration of equality is the most telling blow to our humanity.
The difference between what occurs in the minds of men locked away from love and compassion and how normal people think can only be described as this mad despair to be touched. To be wanted. Normal people aren’t stripped of the core necessities in life with the intent to inflict suffering. This circumstance is specific to the idea prison should be punitive. As a result, the prisoner must become inured to pain, loneliness, frustration and heartache. Nourished on fantasy, hardened and hallowed out by the cancer that is every unfulfilled desire, of course the mind deteriorates, fixates and objectifies.
Early in my sentence I had one consistent pen pal. She was my age and in college at a local university, choosing to write to me as an expansion of her work with a local nonprofit. I took her regular letters to mean she really liked me, so I hit on her with a copy of a love poem taken from a book. I couldn’t resist the idea my desire for a close caring relationship with a woman must mean I needed a girlfriend. After all, outside of family, I operated under the asinine belief women served a singular purpose.
I soon discovered the depth of my ignorance and how socially inept being removed from society and humane contact had made me. The young woman wrote back and kindly but firmly set me straight. “I’m not writing to you because I’m looking for a boyfriend. I have one and we’ve been together for three years. I appreciate the poem, though I’ll understand if you don’t want to write back.”
I felt like an ass. The rejection was embarrassing in the way a teacher turning down her grade school student’s invitation to dinner is embarrassing. In my delusion I thought a woman’s interest in my life, a smile and a nod in my direction, meant I should pursue her like a trophy. Eventually I summoned the courage to apologize and explained how she would be my first adult female friend. From then on I resolved to ignore the part of my brain that had nothing to do with our relationship and see her only as my friend.
This relationship was a significant turning point in my maturation on death row, especially in how I viewed women. It seems like an easy concept to grasp, but in practice not objectifying women was difficult for me because there is a great emptiness in my life. Ignoring the need to fill the clearing doesn’t mean it stops being a need or is suddenly painless. It is, however, a process of growth into understanding women are people just like me who deserve to be treated with the same consideration and respect I do.