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Posted March 2, 2013
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Myra Sherman's Captivating New Collection, JAILED
When Myra Sherman, author of the disturbing and affecting new short story collection, JAILED, creates scenes and characters in jails, she knows of what she speaks. These dazzling stories are full of authentic details. Her characters are heart-breaking. You become so engrossed you want to stay up and read late into the night trying to convince yourself they'll be okay. We've all seen B prison movies when staying home sick in front of the tube. Sherman's book, though, is your chance to read some high-conflict, psychological tales depicting the truth of what it's really like to be incarcerated. And the truth not only about the folks in jail, but also those running the jail.
Myra Sherman, whom I had the pleasure to meet in a Tin House summer workshop led by Dorothy Allison many years ago, is a petite woman, so petite it's hard to imagine her ever being in such an authoritative position as some of the characters in these stories. However, not only does her eloquent and emotionally truthful prose intimate how real her fiction is, but as her bio states, Sherman got her Master's in Social Welfare at Berkeley and is a licensed clinical social worker. "She has worked as the Director of Mental Health in a San Francisco Bay area county jail and as a therapist specializing in patients at risk for suicide, homeless substance abusers, and mentally disordered sex offenders. Her writing is inspired by her clinical work and gives voice to the marginalized and forgotten."
In "The Jewel of Oakland," a female inmate has just been discharged. "I was released to the jail lobby, startled into sudden freedom," Lucinda tells us. But it is not freedom she experiences. She is the adopted daughter of a well-to-do art history professor, a woman who thinks taking on the bi-racial infant Lucinda makes her seem socially admirable. Lucinda has no idea what to do with herself once released and goes immediately to a coffee shop for a macchiato, where she meets Gus, a man too old and unattractive for her. Anything, however, is better than going home to her mother, who is in more denial than Lucinda herself. They have conversations that run like this:
"You don't really use amphetamines."
"Yes, I do."
And an example of when her mother comes to the hospital after one of Lucinda's many suicide attempts:
I shrug. "Tell me about my birth parents," I say.
She flushes slightly. She coughs quietly. "Why now?" she asks.
Silently I hold out my white bandage-wrapped left arm.
"I don't understand," she says.
"You don't want to," I say.
She shakes her head dismissively.
"I've never been the daughter you wanted," I say.
"No. You're wrong," she says.
"Your dirty looks . . ."
"Guilty looks . . ."
Despite her self-hatred, her proclivity towards meth, Lucinda is an artist. Reading the story, we route for her to make it.
In another story, "Violet and Jay," Violet is proud of Jay when he comes home after being considered for and then getting the job of "Fanklin County's new jail psychiatrist." She feels the job is noble, but she's also envious. She's an artist who makes "urban artifact sculptures of salvaged metal embellished with semi-precious stones," but they are "gathering dust, cluttering the loft with art no one wanted." She's her family's eccentric, loves to wear her trademark cape, though Jay calls it "stained and shredding. You look like a medieval street person."
When Jay comes home from this interview, he's "revved up. Pacing the length of the loft and smoking a joint, he stripped to red silk briefs, strewing charcoal Armani on the sand cork floor. He snorted from excitement. His face was flushed. He kept cracking his knuckles. I found his self-congratulatory swaggering repulsive."
The reader finds out soon enough that life on the outside sometimes isn't any better than life on the inside. Jay is late for his job every day, drinks heavily when he's at home and boasts about what a great psychiatrist he is and how much the jail needs him. He becomes increasingly erratic, egomaniacal, and moody when he talks endlessly about what happened at work each day and how great he is, so much so that sometimes she can't understand what he's saying. Finally he goes too far. Whether or not Violet and Jay will survive their own kind of jail is high drama.
Sherman's stories are arresting. The language is beautiful. You feel like a peeping tom discovering what really goes on in jails and who those people really are who say they're helping inmates. Rush out and buy this book!
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Posted January 2, 2013
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