Last week we published the first part of Danner Darcleight’s blog in anticipation of our release of Concrete Carnival in September If you haven’t read PART ONE, I’d suggest you read that now. It has gotten more hits than anything we’ve placed on this blog in the past two years.
Besides his prison memoir, he has also had essays published in Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City. Let me just add this before turning this blog over to Danner: On April 21 we submitted Concrete Carnival to the Non-fiction judges at the National Book Award.
DANNER DARCLEIGHT writes from and about prison. His essays have been published in Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City.
* * *
“Lily's friends each had similar reactions when she brought them into her confidence, one at a time. They raised time-honored objections: What if he's screwing around with men in there? Writing and visiting with other women? Scamming you, and planning to leave if he gets released? Won't you miss the physical intimacy?
“The same objections can be raised in regard to conventional relationships. Any tour of daytime TV will reveal a demented parade of toxic marriages, once-happy couples torn asunder courtesy of infidelity and hidden motives and domestic violence. Trust cuts both ways, especially since Lily is an attractive woman who regularly gets hit on at social functions, and I can't ask her to become a hermit. She's around men who can provide the material things and physical presence that I can only dream of, but Lily makes me feel secure in her love, so there is none of the frothing jealousy that I felt over girlfriends in high school.
“As to the lack of physical intimacy, that seems to be the norm in most relationships—if traditional love lives didn't need spicing up, why are there so many seven-step recipes devoted to just that at the supermarket checkout counter?
“Anyway, Lily shared my writing and drawings with her friends, fleshing out my portrait, as it were, showing that someone guilty of murder can create, not just destroy Mostly, though, it was her new, and lasting, sense of contentment that helped Lily 's friends understand our relationship. Still, there would occasionally come the question, What will you do if he never gets out?
“I now have almost seventeen years in on twenty-five-to-life, and it's no guarantee I'll make parole in eight years, when I'm forty-seven, or in twelve years, fourteen, sixteen, et disheartening-cetera. I have friends doing life without parole, who, because the state considers them ‘civilly dead,’ had to receive special permission from the warden in order to marry. To people who say those couples have no future, I'd counter in the Eastern tradition, that there is no such thing as future, and they're bringing comfort and compassion to each other in the present moment.
“The think-of-the-future argument is often heard. Do you think you'll be able to remain with him during his incarceration? Do you worry that he'll leave you once he gets out? Similar questions could be asked of those married to active duty military personnel, or to someone struggling with a debilitating health condition, or, for that matter, to a corporate lawyer dedicated to an eighty-hour-a-week climb up the partnership ladder. Can you imagine yourself asking a newlywed if she worries that her husband will start sleeping around soon, and leave in ten years when he gets a promotion? Lily is routinely asked things that no one would deem appropriate if her husband wasn’t in prison, questions that only partially obscure her interlocutor's misgivings about us.
“What about having children? some ask.
“What about it? There are plenty of happy marriages that don't bring children into the world. In fact, research has shown that time spent with one's children rates as slightly less enjoyable as doing housework. Granted, evolution has coded us with a desire to procreate, and Madison Avenue butters its bread with the pitch that you won 't be complete without 2.5 kids, a white picket fence and a minivan, but breeding is overrated, and the world will do just fine without my genes living on. I think I’d prefer to adopt a frisky dog.
“It's the rare relationship that survives one spouse being arrested and going to prison for any length of time. In addition to the stigma of being married to a convicted criminal, there are mouths to feed, and tough decisions to be made. I have several friends whose wives dropped off the face of the earth shortly after the arrest, years ago, yet these men are still wearing t heir weddings rings, a bittersweet memento from a life before everything came unglued.
“On the other hand, marriages that begin with one partner in prison tend to be extremely resilient. I'll have to proceed anecdotally, and you’ll have to half rely on me as being a competent observer: the divorce rate is considerably lower than the sixty percent of couples in the world who flame out.
“We come to the table with open eyes and a mature understanding of what the marriage will be, and what it won 't be. We will be companions, even if much of our time is spent apart. Quiet dinners together are out, so are weekend getaways and mundane trips to the supermarket and make-up sex after arguing our way through the assembly of an IKEA table. Is that hard to deal with for both parties? You bet. But, is it worth it? Lily and I, and countless others, think so.
“For me, the sun rises and sets with Lily, my never-ending fount of happiness. Unlike the superficial relationships in my past, I have in Lily a partner, a companion. The love I feel for her registers as a fluttery warmth in my chest, or the involuntary smile that appears whenever I think of her. We're more than just the plot lines of a Lifetime movie. The bond we share continues to make each of us better, stronger people—the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. We are, in a word, happy.
“So, finally, after all the layers have been peeled away, we get to the festering core of negativity: irrespective of prison, people look down on happy marriages, yet the reasons that unhappy people look down on them are numerous and unspoken.
“With the majority of conventional marriages ending in divorce, and a large swath of loveless couples sticking together until the kids are old enough to move out, I can understand why people make snap judgments about men and women who marry prisoners. Rather than looking in their unhappy mirror, they proclaim us to be delusional, dysfunctional, or possessed of lower standards.
“I'll let you in on a secret: I used to harbor similar beliefs about my peers and the women who went for them. In retrospect, I wasn't conscious of my jealousy of these people who wouldn't have to walk through life alone. Now one of them, I know our standards aren't lower — we have simply come to value those traits heralded in marriage guides: understanding, involvement, empathy, passion, devotion.
“We work on our communication skills, because we have to. The silent treatment doesn't work with collect calls. Access to the phone is limited, so if we don't resolve an issue, it could be another twenty-four hours, or a week, before we reconnect. There are times when Lily has had a rough day, and is not really in the mood to talk, when she’ll say, ‘I wish we could just sit together quietly, with my head on your shoulder.’ In those moments, we both feel the distance, and I long to be there for her, to cook dinner or scratch her head. But what I can do is emulate that kind of presence, and bring her comfort. l channel my inner NPR host, and tell Lily lighthearted things and funny stories. We've learned that what’s necessary for making a marriage work isn't having money, or children, or date nights. It's being emotionally available for each other. Doing little kindnesses. She sends me pictures of puppies, and adorns the page with glitter stickers; I pass along or summarize articles relevant to her interests. She and I part company with the quick messages written on each other's arm.
“That’s the thing about us: we're willing to work on the relationship, and keep working on it. Many of my married peers are the same way. We're grateful that someone sees us for the person we are, not simply as the criminal act we senselessly, regrettably committed five, ten, twenty-five years ago. And like a dog rescued from the pound, we show our gratitude daily. You can usually tell when a guy in here is in a loving relationship: his head is out of prison, and he knows there are far more important things than the slights of guards and pettiness of peers. Having someone who actually wants to hear from you, and listens with compassion, does more to turn a life around than all the rehabilitative programs combined. Being loved like that turns your life on.
“I can imagine that this transformation in me was outwardly apparent when, one by one, Lily's friends accompanied her on visits. The ice quickly broken, we sat together, talking, laughing, eating greasy food, and washing it down with sugary drinks. Consistently, when I would reach Lily in the evening, she'd report that her friends enjoyed the day and want to return. They say they get it, now that they've seen us interacting.
“It's nice validation for us, but unnecessary. We knew very early on that what we have is special. She's taught me that everyone deserves a shot at love, even me. As to the people who’ll never open their minds long enough to think objectively about couples like Lily and me, that's their loss. If they did, they might learn something, because though I may be in prison, at least l don’t view my wife as a ball and chain.”
* * *
I WELCOME YOUR COMMENTS on this site—or directly via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) —as there is no way to reach Danner currently who is serving time in a Maximum Security Prison. But I can send your comments or questions off to him via his wife, Lilly, who can deliver them when she visits. I also hope you will share this blog with others.