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Thick Skin and a Pretty Smile

Bank Notes began my journey as a published author. Barnes and Noble book signings, speaking events, and a documentary became part of my life. I love every opportunity I get to meet people, spread awareness, and discuss my books. Interacting with the public, particularly about highly personal and controversial topics, isn’t without its share of downsides, however.

Most people are shocked to find out an educated, professional, middle-class woman is in love with an inmate. I don’t fit the stereotype. I’m supposed to lack self-esteem. I should be unattractive. I should have some sort of mental disorder. Most people overcome their shock and surprise, taking the time to open a conversation with me, asking how, why, and where I go from here. However, I seldom get through an event without at least one ugly episode.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a lovely woman visited with me as I told her what Bank Notes and Guilty Hearts are about. We talked about sentencing reform and the stigma places on inmates and their families.

Before she left, she said, “These are difficult issues to discuss as a country, but it must be heartbreaking to deal with it as a part of your own life.”

“It is. Thank you for understanding,” I said. We both had tears welling up in our eyes.

Literally, the very next person who came along was vile. Without saying a word to me, a woman and her husband picked up a copy of Bank Notes and began reading the back cover. The last paragraph begins, “Written by the woman he falls in love with while in prison.” I knew when she reached that line.

“Well, she’s an idiot!” she exclaimed.

“That’s me. I wrote the book. I’m the one he loves,” I said as her husband looked as though he wanted to sink into the floor.

It didn’t faze her one bit. She proceeded to tell me how stupid she thought I was and how I was wasting my time. She was neither upscale nor sophisticated. She was vicious in a Walmart Black Friday type of way. Her husband pleaded with her to show some decency. Yes, someone who would create a scene in the middle of a Barnes and Noble Bookstore, using poor grammar and a lack of social finesse, was the one lecturing me on how stupid I was.

I just smiled and said, “You are free to feel any way you want to. I’m happy in my life. Have a good day.”

She continued to mutter as she walked away.

A thick skin and a pretty smile is the only way to face the inevitable backlash that comes with American’s need to feel superior to inmates and anyone attached to them. When someone feels better about themselves by attacking others based on a preconceived prejudice, he or she doesn’t care how hurtful they are.

Do they comments hurt? Yes, they do.

I face, toe-to-toe legislators, DOC directors, and radio and television interviewers who are primed to break me down, ridicule me, and belittle my knowledge and integrity. People sometimes tell me I am brave. I’m not sure how much of it is bravery. I have a firm belief in speaking the uncomfortable truth, even when people don’t want to consider it. I have no tolerance for someone else’s pinched viewpoint getting in the way of needed reform.

I didn’t start out in life as a crusader. I came from a family that had its problems. My dad was a well-respected figure in our hometown, but at home he was an abusive alcoholic. No one outside our family knew what we lived with because, in those days, you simply didn’t talk about your problems. Dirty laundry was kept neatly hidden behind pulled curtains. What it did teach me, as the youngest who was at the bottom of the hill when shit rolled down, was to be able to take hard knocks (verbally and physically) without losing sight of the truth that it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me. I didn’t cause the drinking. I didn’t cause the anger. I didn’t cause money to be short or for cigarettes and booze to run out. I learned how to have thick skin and a pretty smile.

When my parents divorced, I was twelve. My brother was a senior in high school and he nearly quit school to work because we were left with no money coming into the house. Our father, known as a big-hearted man in the community, didn’t exhibit that charity inside our own family. He paid no child support and even spread a rumor that my brother and I weren’t his, so he shouldn’t have to pay anything. Anyone who looked at us knew the absurdity of his allegations. Like it or not–for any of us–we were his children. The pressure mounted on us to be perfect. Any perceived slight would “prove” to the community that our mother was the failure our father said she was. It would prove that his railings against us that we “were no damn good and never would be” were correct. Talk about having to have thick skin and a pretty smile. We had to appear perfect while we went hungry and while we saw no light at the end of the tunnel.

So, I don’t know if it is bravery that I exhibit when I go to Jefferson City to slay political dragons at the Capitol. I can’t say bravery is what gets me through ugly radio interviews in major markets when the host says, “Now, I have to ask about conjugal visits.” Nor is bravery what I rely upon when a woman stands in front of me telling me I basically deserve bad things to happen to me because I’m so stupid for loving Keith. No, I think it’s rather a coping mechanism I developed from the time I was in diapers. Don’t attack, but don’t let what they are saying hurt me. They are just words, and I have survived far worse.

Within the pages of my books, I’ve given readers not only a glimpse into the dysfunctional world of our prison system but I’ve given details of a life I normally don’t share with just anyone. I wanted this to be personal. It’s easy to ignore problems in the abstract. It’s easy to dehumanize inmates and their families when they are faceless “stupid” people. Unless it’s personal, most people don’t care. Most are unaware of the incredible cost to us, our communities, and our tax dollars when corruption runs rampant inside the death fences of our state prisons. First people must care before change can happen. My hope is that you care. Caring alone, however, isn’t enough. You must act.

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