Don’t call us, we’ll call you

October 30, 2008

24 July–My third family member interview

Filed under: Incarceration research — Tags: , , , — llcall @ 3:04 am

From the beginning, it is clear that this is going to be a hard interview. As we walk in, I ask her casually, “How’re you doing today?” and she responds, ‘Not too good. I’m really missing my husband.’ As we begin the interview, she slouches into the couch. She speaks quietly and mumbles at times.

We start with the genogram, and immediately it’s clear that things have been very difficult with her husband in jail. She tells us about one close friend who is supportive: “She makes sure I eat.” At first I think this is a financial issue, that she makes sure there is food for her. But as the interview progresses, I also think it is a mental health issue; she seems to be in a deep depression.

They have only been married since February, and as I do the math later, I realize that he has been in jail for more than a third of their marriage. Before his arrest, they all lived happily together—him, his daughter, and her. And now she’s alone.

We turn to the first set of questions about if and how often she has visited her husband. She visited him 3 times, but now they won’t let her go. She talked to him on the phone daily, but now she can’t. There is a no contact order. She tells us how confused she is…she doesn’t know why they won’t let her see him. They send back the money and letters she writes him. I’m perplexed too. Even if she can’t visit or call (maybe he’s in solitary?), I’ve never heard of mail or money being sent back. She is frustrated, on the verge of tears, almost pleading that we can explain why she can’t see her husband. I have no idea.

We get to the next set of questions and I ask her to tell me how true (from 1-7) this statement is:

I can forgive him pretty easily…

7, very true, definitely. She is more sure of that than most of the other family members we’ve interviewed.

Then a few questions later, I ask her to rate how true (from 1-7) this statement is:

He can forgive me pretty easily…

She hesitates. Finally, she says, 5, sometimes true. I’m increasingly perplexed and intrigued. Usually the one in jail needs the forgiveness.

The rest of her answers in the sections about their relationship are largely positive. They are close. They have a good relationship. She thinks about him a lot. The family doesn’t feel complete without him. They share a lot of responsibilities.

But I’m also getting increasingly worried with some of her other responses. He tends to dominate conversations. He has more influence in their relationship than she does. He does not listen to her. She’s afraid she’ll lose his love. She’s not even sure how much he loves her. It will be difficult, if not impossible to carve out a new life without him. He’s very controlling, she tells us.

And then the moment, where it begins to make sense to me:

What has he been charged with? Domestic battery.

A few questions later, I ask:

What do you wish you knew more about in the justice system?

She replies, “Why the police lied about him only being in jail overnight? What’s happening with his case? Why did they lie to me?”

A minute later I ask if she has decided to post bond for him, and she explains that she tried but they wouldn’t let her. They told her he had a parole hold.

We finish the survey and she seems more depressed than when we started, but happy to have the $20 gift card. As we drive away, my wheels are still turning, trying to think of any other more positive scenario to explain what I’ve just heard. But between my justice system knowledge and domestic violence shelter training, this is all that seems logical: He hit her or hurt her somehow, and she called the police. The police told her that he would only be held overnight and then released…and it seems that is what she intended, hoping that he might learn his lesson. But what the police did not know is that it violated his parole, so there was no way he was getting out after 1 night. After a couple weeks in jail, he saw the judge who issued a protective order so that he could not have contact with her, perhaps because the judge observed a pattern of abusive behavior.

It’s heartbreaking on so many levels. She doesn’t understand what happened, and certainly doesn’t feel in control of any of it. She can’t see or talk to or hear from the person she cares about most. She feels insecure about his love for her, how he’ll forgive her. She feels like the justice system is against them.

And yet, I wonder if the justice system is, in fact, trying to protect her. In my domestic violence training, we talked about how on average, women leave and reconcile with their abusers a dozen times before they actually leave for good (if they ever leave for good). One of the key reasons for that is that abusers are emotionally controlling and excel at making their partner feel that they can’t live without them. And I can’t help but wonder if a well-meaning judge is trying to help her achieve some distance so that she can make a healthy decision for her future.

I keep thinking about this interview, this woman, this family long after I leave her house. I don’t know what’s ultimately right, and I can’t do anything about it anyway. And there is the agony of this work.


October 22, 2008

Something a little lighter…

Filed under: Incarceration research — Tags: , , — llcall @ 5:58 pm

When I tell people that interviewing in the jail is really fun, they look incredulous. And I can understand that, especially if you read the last two posts about my family member interview. (For the record, all my family member interviews were more difficult and depressing than the jailed men’s interviews. In some ways that may be surprising because jail seems like a very difficult, depressing place to be. But at the same time, it speaks to the multi-dimensional impact and collateral damage of incarceration.)

But I wanted to relate a quick anecdote that might begin to show just why our time in the jail was so enjoyable.

Disclaimer: I wasn’t there during this particular experience, but the two undergraduate researchers relayed it to me several times. So I’ve written it from the first-person perspective for simplicity.

We ask the guard to call Roger* and he eventually enters the classroom very quietly. As we ask the eligibility questions, he seems willing to answer but still quiet and tentative. He agrees to participate, so we begin the first stage of the interview: the family genogram. As we ask about his children, parents, siblings, he continues to answer quietly. As I look down at our papers, recording his responses, I suddenly hear a loud, “RRRROOOAAARRRR!” It practically knocks the wind right out of us; it is THAT terrifying. Since the jail is largely metal, concrete, and glass, it seems to reverberate outside the classroom and through the halls. As we look up in shock, this previously quiet man is chuckling loudly. “I couldn’t help myself. I had to do it.”

Even after another hour and a half of interviewing, he is still chuckling as we send him back to the block. “I got you so good.”

*In this post, and throughout the blog, all names and identifying information have been changed.

October 11, 2008

19 July–Update on my second family member interview

Filed under: Incarceration research — Tags: , , — llcall @ 10:03 pm

Just two days after her interview, I’m back at the jail doing a follow-up with her estranged husband. When we ask the same questions about his family relationships that we asked in the first interview, his tone has really changed. During the first interview, he acknowledges how awful he has acted when he uses, but explains that he hopes to stay clean when he’s released so he can win his wife back. Now, three weeks later, he says he has no family anymore. They don’t care about him. They don’t respond to his letters. They don’t think about him anymore. It’s hard to listen to him say these things, knowing that nothing could be farther from the truth. He is loved, and in fact, they find it difficult to keep from thinking about him. But I can’t tell him that.

It’s a strange thing to know family members’ inner feelings that they can’t or don’t know how to share with each other. She can’t tell him how much power he still has in her life. Self-preservation…I can understand that. And in his lonely cell, he can’t understand how she could still care and not do something, anything. I can understand that too.

And what do I take away from watching so much heartache and destruction right before my eyes? Drugs and alcohol ruin lives. Incarceration traps so many people, not just the captive. There is not, and maybe never will be, anything simple about their lives.

October 5, 2008

17 July–My second family member interview

Filed under: Incarceration research — Tags: , — llcall @ 5:03 pm

This is the first family member interview I’m conducting in which I also interviewed the man in jail. I really like her right from the start. She is a straight-talking, congenial person with a great Midwestern accent. She’s just plain funny. She starts out letting us know that it is over between her and her estranged husband, the man in jail. She says it matter-of-factly, there is no question about it. I already knew from his interview that they had separated before he came to jail, and he said it was mainly because of his alcoholism. She tells the same story…that he’s a destructive monster when he drinks and it’s time to end it completely.

Although she prefaces the interview with the fact that their relationship is completely over and she does not care what happens to him anymore, some of the first questions in the interview begin to paint a different picture.

I feel guilty when I get out of the house to do something enjoyable while [MAN] is in jail…

I feel it will be difficult if not impossible to carve out my own life as long as [MAN] needs my help…

I feel incapable of establishing new friendships right now…

These first three questions are easy for her. Of course, she doesn’t feel guilty when she gets out of the house; they haven’t lived together for a year. She has her own life. She is always ready to make new friends. But as we get to the next questions, her answers become considerably less decisive.

I feel I cannot go anywhere without first thinking about [MAN]’s needs…

Sometimes I’m not sure where [MAN] fits in as part of the family…

I often feel mixed up about how much I should be doing for [MAN]…

I put [MAN]’s needs before my own…

She struggles to answer, and occasionally interjects statements like, “Whoever wrote these questions was good. That’s a good question.” When thinking about how he fits into the family, she breaks down in tears. She explains that if it were just about her, it would be simple. But the grandkids (children of her biological daughter, his stepdaughter) adore him, they miss him, they ask about him. How can she cut off that tie?

This acknowledgement seems to open the floodgates. And as she continues to answer our questions, it’s clear the situation is not as cut and dry and she first said. She tells us, almost pleadingly, if he would just stop drinking, things would be okay. He is such a wonderful man when he’s sober. She explains that she has never been unfaithful to him, never even so much as looked at another man. She tells us of how they first met; she sounds happy and peaceful for a moment. A new wave of tears begins as she tells us that all she ever wanted was to have a good, lifelong marriage. She shrugs and gestures, as if indicating, Look how far I am from that.

We’re nearly done now, but she keeps winding off topic as she thinks about him. She asks if we have met him, and I acknowledge that I have. She asks me, “What did you think?” She sounds hopeful that I will have good things to say about him—she seems so far away from the person we started interviewing who had written him off forever and didn’t care about him. I explain that my interview with him was very pleasant, and she begins to tell us again how charming he is, how sweet when he is not drinking.

I’m heartbroken for her as we leave. It’s clear she still loves him, despite all he’s done to her. It’s clear her initial language and demeanor are defense mechanisms to save her from continued torment. It’s clear nothing will ever be simple or uncomplicated in this situation. It’s clear she would do ANYTHING to get him to stop drinking and using drugs, so that they could have a nice, normal life. In fact, she has done many things already. Managed his money once they separated, taken him to AA and NA meetings, helped him get a job, hired an attorney now that he’s in jail. Part of this is to protect her house, which he is still a part owner of despite the fact that she says she paid for all of it. But we can tell, too, that she desperately wants him to change so that he can be a husband, father, and grandfather again.

So although she first says that it is not difficult to carve out a life on her own, her later words belie that statement, while simultaneously revealing the devastating impact of alcoholism, drug abuse, and incarceration on families. Collateral damage, indeed.

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