My husband, the convicted murderer

I was a newspaper columnist, he was a former drug dealer. Our romance was complicated. But then, isn't everyone's?

Published February 8, 2011 1:39AM (EST)

We're going to hear about it any day now: Jared Loughner, the Tucson, Ariz., gunman and the media's latest "monster," is going to receive love letters. It will make sensational headlines, like when women started courting Joran Van Der Sloot. I brace myself whenever a man is convicted of a heinous crime and his photo gets plastered on TV for months. I know it's only a matter of time before we hear stories of "those crazy ladies."

I hate those stories, and not just because they're written with a tone both snide and misogynistic; I hate them because 19 years ago I met a man who was in prison for murder, and I fell in love with him. We were married for seven years.

So here's my sensational headline: "She married a murderer." But what I've found is that most of us who marry convicted men are not mad. (I've also found that most men in prison -- even those guilty of the worst crimes -- are not monsters.) Our stories are complicated -- like every true love story is.

I met my husband when I was a newspaper columnist at Kingston, Ontario's newspaper, the Whig Standard, Canada's oldest daily, which had, until that very spring, been owned by just two families. Both those families were community-spirited, literary types who did idiosyncratic things like letting columnists like me write luxuriously long pieces. The Joyceville Medium Security Institution sat just off the road I drove nearly every day. Lit up by sodium lights, it looked to me like an alien spaceship. I had written columns about my trips to South Africa and Israel and Belfast, columns about date rape and drugs and youth in trouble. Prison seemed an obvious next subject.

Driving there that first day I could hear heaves rise from deep in the river as the ice broke up, but when I walked inside, I learned my first lesson about prison: There is no weather inside. It was always dank and musty, with little light and less air. Prison administrators had arranged for me to meet two lifers, Rob and John, which taught me lesson No. 2: Prisoners don't talk about their crimes. We talked about the food (passable), the guards (good and bad), the time (endless). They took me on a tour, showed me square cells the size of my bathroom, all concrete and steel, most of them double-bunked since the population had expanded beyond the building's capacity.

Over a lunch of greasy beef and fries, Rob mentioned he ran the Inmate Committee, but his co-chairman had declared his lack of interest in meeting with me. Instead of feeling snubbed, I felt cocky. Why wouldn't someone talk to me? I had quickly picked up the lingo -- Sally Port and V&C and Unit Five -- words I hadn't known that morning slipped easily off my tongue by afternoon. Now, I cringe at the memory: how badly I wanted to know insiders' secrets, how naive I was to think I had figured them out.

I was headed to the exit when I finally ran into the co-chairman Rob had told me about: His eyes invisible behind dark glasses, Will slowly looked me up and down with what felt like a stab of judgment. Tattoos snaked around his muscular arms. His hair was military short and gray, though he always described it as being blond, the color it was when he was arrested at the age of 31. His mother would tell me it had turned overnight, the same thing that would happen to me when I turned 40. But that came a few months later. That day he was, simply, the only person who greeted me as if I were an enemy.

"I don't talk to journalists," he said.

"Nice to meet you, too," I shot back, and offered my hand. "I'm a columnist, not a journalist. There's a difference." He seemed like he could smell fear, so I tamped mine down. "How do you expect people to know what happens inside if you don't talk to outsiders?"

He smiled. "What do you care?" If I could have seen his eyes, I'd have seen the good-humored tease he could be, but those glasses were opaque. "You want to know about what goes on inside?" he asked. "Talk to the families. They never hurt a soul, and they know what prison's all about. There's a family social on Saturday. Come to that."

"Deal," I said.

As I drove home, I felt buoyed. For years I had seen lines of visitors streaming out of Joyceville's roadway. On cold and rainy days, I had even thought about stopping to pick up one of the women by the roadside waiting for the bus into Kingston, 10 miles away. They always looked sad. But as my foot edged toward the brakes, I'd think: She's probably smuggling drugs or guns. The prisons had become punch lines in our town, where much of the population earned their living as guards, administrators and contractors. It's amazing to me what I believed back then: that rapes and murders were daily and acceptable fare, that people in prison had little to nothing in common with me.

But I did want to learn. I had always been a sucker for the powerless. I grew up rooting for the Cleveland Indians, forever sided with my most awkward students, and on the sheep farm where I lived I fell hardest for the weakest lambs and craziest horses. My father was a prisoner of war in World War II, my grandfather a POW in WWI. I understood that prison could cause harm not only to those who inhabit and work behind its walls, but also to those who inherit the scars. That's why Will's suggestion that I talk to families struck me as wise.

Two days later, on a sunny Saturday, I returned to Joyceville. I talked to lifers and short-timers, to kids and moms and dads. I scribbled notes, and the day passed in a blur of sad stories and invitations to return. The gym was festooned with balloons, like a school carnival where the women wore sexy dresses. In the far corner I spotted a pretty woman and a bunch of kids surrounding Will, and I was surprised to discover what I felt in that moment: disappointment that he was married.

On Monday, a call came for me at the paper, in the middle of being filmed for a segment on an Ottawa TV show. I never did find out how Will managed to make that call, but I promised I would phone him back. A few hours later, when I tried, I learned yet another lesson: No one can call a prisoner, not even a reporter. Fearful that I had somehow angered him, I pulled some strings and finally reached him. He wanted to know why I hadn't shown up at the social.

"I was there," I said. "I saw you in the gym. With your wife."

"Ex-wife," he said.

Will told me he wanted to read my column. Was he flirting with me?

Wait: Was I flirting with him?

I showed up the next day with the column and waited in the bleak visiting room for Will. In one corner a large television played too softly to hear but loud enough to fill the room with static. In another corner stood five vending machines with chips and stale sandwiches and watery coffee. A fog of smoke filled the room, and a door led to the outdoor visiting area with picnic tables and a rusting swing set I heard creaking every time the door opened.

After 10 minutes Will swaggered toward me, confident and unsmiling. With his glasses off, I finally got a look at his face. If I wanted to cast a handsome convict hero, I would cast him -- broader than Ed Harris but with that gritty beauty, that gentleness that could turn hard. He nodded hello and sat down across from me.

As he read the column I studied the red stars tattooed on his wrists and the word winding up his muscular arm: Desperado. Laughably tough. One of his arms looked thinner than the other, and later I learned he had busted a bicep years before while attempting to lift a car barehanded. He was that kind of macho, and he called that a stunt he wished he could forget. "Just me being an idiot," he said; that phrase, so often, the one that ended conversations. He didn't like to remember the days that had led him to prison. He'd been a drug dealer, who killed another drug dealer. But I didn't know any of that yet.

As he beamed in on the pages, I marveled at his stillness. Finally he looked up, folded the pages in half and cleared his throat. "You're OK," he said.

His acceptance was a welcome relief.

He did want me to get one thing straight, and fast -- that John, the prisoner assigned to be my "source," was NG. "No good," he translated. "He's a rat." It was the rats, he explained, who told The Man whatever The Man wanted to hear. Rats were allowed to start fights, take drugs, get drunk, all without risking bad reports or sudden transfers. All a prisoner had to do, Will said, was sell his soul.

My gut told me he was telling me the truth. When I thanked him for his time, he extended a hand and held mine one beat too long. "You're beautiful," he said.

I yanked my hand away.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I was a bit of a player, hard habit to break." Then he added, "Your eyes are sad."

"No, they're not." I was saved by the guard calling an end to visits, but as we walked to the exit door I began to wonder if he was right.

That same spring, just before I visited Joyceville, David Milgaard was released from prison after serving 26 years for a crime he didn't commit. It was a terrible story: A 16-year-old cursed by coincidence, a crazy witness and a clunky justice system unwilling to admit its own mistakes. I wonder now if it was Milgaard's story that fueled my desire to visit Will a second time. Whatever it was, as we relaxed, he told me more and more about prison, in particular about some administrative shenanigans going on. When he asked if he could call me at home, I  told him I lived with my boyfriend.

"Who is he?" he asked.

"A professor. You can call me, but understand this is just a friendship."

He nodded and said, "Your boyfriend doesn't make you happy."

"Your imagination," I said with a laugh. But he was right: My boyfriend hadn't made me happy for a long, long time. He was out of town for months, but our relationship already felt over.

I gave my home number to Will, suspecting he'd call if some news broke in the prison.

A few hours after I got home that day, the phone rang.

As Will and I talked, I sensed myself falling down a rabbit hole. I made excuses to rationalize my behavior: I told myself he was simply educating me to write something meaningful. I also told myself my liberal, activist parents would be proud of me for fighting for justice. But as Will opened up to me -- how he'd hurt his mother and his three kids, the shame he'd brought to his sisters, who lived in the shadow of his crime -- I sensed all I needed was a push, and I'd be a goner.

When we hung up, I called Kate, my closest confidante and told her I had met a fascinating man. "But he's in prison for murder," I said with a grim laugh.

In her usual unflappable way, Kate calmly told me a story of a friend she'd had a long time ago in Hollywood. She'd met a man in prison, too -- and married him.

I continued to do interviews in the prison, and every inmate I talked to told me Will was a "stand-up guy." He was the guy who calmed them, who brokered peace, and I felt proud for having won the trust of someone so admired. By the time I published my second column, I was actually feeling at home inside Joyceville.

Four weeks into my visits I walked into the paper, and my friend Joan at the reception desk winked and nodded toward my office. It was filled, ceiling to floor, with flowers from Will.

My colleagues pelted me with questions: How had he done it? Were prisoners allowed to call florists? How had he paid for them? Was he rich? What did he want from me? Was this some kind of bribe?

I was wondering the same things when he called that evening.

"They're just to say thanks," he said. "My mother and my daughter ordered them for me."

"It's too extravagant," I said.

He laughed. "That's what my mom said, but I told her you're worth it. She'll see."

And then I was gone. Swept down into the rabbit hole, far from daylight.

Two days later, an administrator from Joyceville called to tell me I couldn't talk to Will anymore. If that hadn't happened, our story likely would have played out differently. I would have loved him, I'm certain. But things might not have moved so fast.

Back then, when I tried to explain what happened -- that people inside Joyceville were trying to shut Will up and shut me out -- my story sounded like paranoia. But it wasn't. When I refused to stop talking to Will, prison officials kicked me out, and my editor -- under fire by a syndicate that had just taken over the paper -- did not back me up. Furious and feeling as though Will was among my only allies, I signed on to be his personal visitor. When the warden, who knew me well, refused us a private family visit in the trailer -- even though his devoted mother, the nurse, and his children had invited me to join them -- Will told me the only way we could have any private time together was to marry. I agreed.

Was it rash? Of course. But I was in love. And the forces against which we rallied only grew stronger: On the eve of our wedding, Joyceville transferred him 30 miles away to a higher security prison after an inmate (a heroin addict who needed a quick transfer out) attested to the "fact" that Will and another inmate were plotting to kill another inmate. The accusation was manifestly ridiculous; no one ever believed it. But we were separated, his security was raised, and we had to spend the next 10 months fighting his way back to medium security. All those obstacles pushed us still closer together. For the next five and a half years, we were bound by attraction, by love, and by the fight we waged together to earn his parole.

It's strange how the things we fight for can eventually be the things that break us apart: On parole, Will fell into a deep depression. After 18 months, I asked him to leave. We divorced that year.

I don't regret it, but being married to Will was hard and painful. Being a prisoner's wife requires mighty resistance -- to the mind-numbing, bureaucratic prison system itself, but even more, to those who so casually dismiss us as less than, those who see us not as people who deserve support and respect but who deserve contempt.

Maybe our story does sound crazy. Maybe it doesn't make sense. But I do know that prison took away things from Will that our relationship helped to restore. I've always believed in something that John O'Donahue, the Irish poet and philosopher, said: "There is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there is still a sureness in you, where there is a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you." Those of us who have cared for and married prisoners, and nurtured and taught and ministered to prisoners, know if there's a single hope that those who serve time and are released -- and most will be -- won't turn from people who have committed crimes into real, honest-to-god monsters, it is knowing that they can be loved.

By Amy Friedman

Amy Friedman is the author of two memoirs, the syndicated column "Tell Me a Story" and writer/producer of the "Tell Me a Story" audiobook series, winner of a 2010 Audie Award. This piece is excerpted and adapted from her recently completed memoir, "Desperado’s Wife." Amy lives and teaches creative writing in Los Angeles.

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