Subtitled “a memoir of love, prison, and other complications” award-winning author Diane Schoemperlen has penned a powerful and very personal account of the adversities of maintaining a relationship with a convicted murderer for almost six years.
Historic Kingston, Ontario is a beautiful university city located where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario. It is also the home to a number of federal correctional institutions that run the spectrum from maximum to minimum security. At the time her story begins, “Shane” (most names have been changed) has served thirty years of a life sentence for second-degree murder. He is out on an ETA (escorted temporary absence) and is working in the St. Vincent de Paul’s free hot meal program one day a week. Diane (the author) a fiftyish single mother is volunteering there three days a week. Blissfully ignorant of the meaning of the teardrop tattoo under his eye, but knowing that he is serving time for some type of crime, a budding relationship begins with the handsome, attentive prisoner:
Quick-witted, intelligent, and flirtatious, with an outrageous and facetious sense of humour, he could always make me laugh.
Then as the hot meal program was closing down for the summer, Shane asks Diane if he could keep in touch by writing her a letter:
I said, “Sure, why not?” and gave him my address.
Why not, indeed?
It was only after I got home that I wondered if it was a good idea.
The following Friday I received a letter in the morning mail. Two handwritten pages in which Shane made it clear that he was hoping for a romance, that I was, in fact, the woman of his dreams.
The Next Six Years
For the next six years, Diane takes the reader along as she and Shane navigate not only the intricacies of the Canadian correctional system but the difficulties and complexities of maintaining a loving and supportive relationship with an incarcerated person. For every step forward, there are two or more steps back. Shane does eventually get paroled back into society, and Diane who is used to living alone, now finds it difficult to share her life with a man, let alone a federal offender and all the psychological baggage he brings into the relationship. Eventually, this takes a toll on both of them and the downward spiral of their love and their on-again/off again romance is well documented in the narrative.
A Learning Experience
This is Not My Life teaches much about how laws and federal institutions operate in Canada. For example, there is no time off for good behaviour; that is an American thing. The differences between first and second-degree murder. How a parole hearing works; who is allowed to go, who is allowed to speak. The levels of security one must pass through (ion scanners, dogs, searches) to enter one of the institutions and how it differs from a minimum-security institution like Frontenac to a medium-security one like Bath. This is as much as a learning experience for Diane as it is for the majority of us who are unfamiliar with such things. All of this occurs as she tries to maintain her quiet, comfortable life, supporting herself as a writer, which is not an easy thing to do at the best of times.
One reviewer called it a “morbid curiosity” that caused them to keep reading, but what captivated my attention the most was discovering (along with Diane) how inmates, particularly “lifers” like Shane eventually become institutionalized, that is they are so used to having things done for them, being told when to eat, when to sleep, etc. that they have a hard time adjusting to the “outside” where such things are not so regulated, if at all. Basically, they have been treated like infants and due to this have no coping skills to rely on once they are released, even into halfway houses. Diane’s battles with Correction Services Canada, with Shane, with her friends (some supportive, many disapprove) take their toll on her, one close friend even suggesting she may be suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). To use Diane’s analogy from the book, life with Shane is like a runaway train that is quickly running out of track, doomed to crash in a fireball. (See the 1986 movie “Tough Guys”).
This is Not My Life is one of the best books I have read this year. It was one of those books that you begrudgingly put down (sleep, life and work must go on!) and couldn’t wait to pick it up again. Ms Schoemperlen could have created a masterful work of fiction out of her experience, but she chose to candidly write this as a memoir and it is due to this choice that the book’s emotional impact really comes to the fore. I had to keep reminding myself that what I was holding was not a novel, but a true story!
I’m sure that this book will be shortlisted and win numerous awards. It will definitely appeal to anyone who has ever been in a relationship that turned toxic, as well as those inquisitive about life behind those cement walls and chain link fences of a federal institution. This is Not My Life is full of various personal and private conflicts, laughs and tears, moments of bliss and times of daunting reality. Highly recommended.