I once managed a local museum where, occasionally, individuals charged with misdemeanours would work off their community service hours. One of them, call her “Wanda,” was an intelligent and capable single mother. She and I were the same age, and often discussed personal relationships. I talked about my lack thereof, and she talked about her boyfriend, incarcerated at the Atlantic Institution, a federal corrections facility for repeat and violent offenders in Renous, New Brunswick. One day, when Wanda was chatting about a recent visit there, she asked, “Why don’t you come up with me some weekend? There’s lots of really nice guys in there.”
I politely turned down her suggestion, but what if I had seriously considered it as an opportunity for romance? Perhaps I’d now have a story similar to that of Diane Schoemperlen, a Governor General’s Literary Award–winning Canadian novelist and short-story writer whose five-year relationship with an inmate of the former Frontenac Institution in Kingston, Ontario, has resulted in her latest book, the memoir This Is Not My Life. It’s an often frustrated – and frustrating – account of how Schoemperlen, damaged, needy, and full of romantic notions, allows her life and well-being to become secondary to that of “Shane,” equally damaged and needy – but also inherently dangerous.
Schoemperlen’s account of her relationship with Shane, sentenced to more than 30 years for second-degree murder, is a powerful personal memoir and a cautionary tale of universal scope. She explores her reasons for becoming involved with him, why she remained in the relationship for so long, and why it was so difficult to break free. And she is not alone. Many women bedeviled by dreams of romance, cultural beliefs, and little sense of self have permitted their lives to be derailed, and sometimes destroyed, by manipulative men.
I read a good portion of this book with some incredulity. Shane’s own brand of manipulation seemed obvious to me, as it did to most of Schoemperlen’s friends, and, in her more honest moments, to the writer herself. So why did she try so hard to make things work? Why didn’t she just walk away? Late in the book Schoemperlen answers these questions, for both the reader and herself, when she states, “I was in love with the story of my relationship with Shane … the story of myself as the one who could save him.”
Self-examination aside, Schoemperlen recounts the quotidian details common to the partner of a prison inmate, including the intense inventory of self, clothing, and driver’s licence in preparation for visits, writing letters to parole officials, psychologist appointments, frantic middle-of-the-night phone calls, delays, and disappointments. She also describes her relationships with other inmates and their families, the prison employees, and the inner workings of the carceral system, and becomes something of a prisoners’ rights crusader, denouncing Bill C-10, the Conservatives’ “tough on crime” legislation.
Schoemperlen is guilty not only of looking for love in all the wrong places, but also of another human failing: putting her own life on hold while wasting valuable time and energy. We all do it, accumulating material and emotional clutter, creating and enduring drama so as not to examine ourselves too closely. The majority of Schoemperlen and Shane’s relationship is spent planning and living for the day when he will be paroled and able to start a new life. Not until much later does she realize that Shane has neither the desire nor the ability to live outside of prison walls and rules.
Schoemperlen is gullible, but I think I understand what attracted her to Shane. As a child, her parents had been, in turn, dismissive and indifferent. She confesses to a history of drinking to soothe her fears and anxieties, and an attraction to “bad boys” who are unavailable for myriad reasons. In all, she appears as a prime candidate to seek and attract a man with predatory instincts.
This Is Not My Life should be compulsory reading for young adults, male and female. Schoemperlen‘s hard-won self-agency is a good lesson for us all – if we heed it, that is. As in most cases of inappropriate romantic partners, we seem to have to learn the hard way. Ten years before Wanda invited me to visit Renous, I was involved with a man who, although not incarcerated, shared many of Shane’s moods and techniques for dealing with life. If only This Is Not My Life had been available to me back then, I might have avoided years of self-doubt and heartache.
NOTE: This review has been amended to correct errors in the characterization of the author’s parents and the misrepresentation of the author’s own reactions to her situation as it appears in the book.