How a Smart, Successful Writer Fell for an Inmate

Amy Friedman decided to tackle a crusading series about prison life. Little did she suspect she'd become immersed in that life -- as the girlfriend and then wife of a charismatic prisoner named Will, who also happened to be a murderer and former drug dealer.
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You could call Amy Friedman's memoir, Desperado's Wife, a prison love story. After all, much of the action occurs in a medium-security Ontario prison. But that would be truly minimizing it.

On a suggestion by a writing student, Friedman, then a newspaper columnist in her late 30s and an Ivy League graduate, decided to tackle a crusading series about prison life. Little did she suspect she'd become immersed in that life -- as the girlfriend and then wife of a charismatic prisoner named Will, who also happened to be a murderer and former drug dealer.

Now twenty years later, Friedman has written a bracingly candid memoir about that improbable journey. (Disclaimer: I've known Friedman for several years.) Fittingly, the title refers to the defiant word tattooed on her lover's arm. I spoke with Friedman about her book and the stigma faced by prisoners' families by phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she was anxiously waiting her taped appearance on
Katie. She was also excited about POPs, a venture she and her current husband, Dennis Danziger, launched last year. Based at Venice High School, it's a club for teens whose loved ones have been incarcerated.

Q: Why did you think your story about your marriage to an inmate convicted of murder would resonate with readers?

A: I didn't think about that question when I was first writing it. The reason I wrote it was to understand the whole story and myself a little more. It was such a profoundly life-changing experience, and not all negative. But because I was so inside of it, I sort of didn't know what had happened after it was over. I could look back and go, Wow, was I crazy? As some people were telling me? What should I have done differently? So. that was the reason for writing it.

The other reason was one of the things I felt very strongly and still feel strongly is the trajectory of the relationship was not unlike the trajectory of many relationships. I know a lot of people who have fallen in love with people who are not the right person -- not the right religion, or somebody who is the bad boy, or somebody your parents didn't want you to marry, or the wrong color. There are so many stories this one is like. I heard from lots of people who said, 'I had this relationship, or I loved somebody and everybody turned against me.'
The prison is kind of just the backdrop.

Q: What reaction have you gotten from people who know you now, but didn't know you during this time in your life? Are they surprised you were married to a man in prison?

A: I just got a call from a former student, who said, 'Oh my god. How weird.' There are people who are a little freaked out about it. That's one end of the spectrum. But everywhere I've gone, there are people who've come up to me and whispered, 'I dated a guy in prison.' There are so many prisoners; two and a half million people are in prison in this country. Almost every one of them has mothers, sisters, fathers, uncles, children, aunts and cousins.

I was sitting at lunch with my boss. This woman comes over and my book was sitting there. We're out in the middle of nowhere, in this beautiful, rarified school. She starts to cry. She says, 'My sister's in prison.' They're an upper middle-class family and this horrible thing happened. Then she left me a note. 'Please go tell our stories.'

So that's the other big reaction. And then a lot of people have just said, this really resonated for me.

I did a reading in the Palisades [an affluent neighborhood in LA] about three weeks ago. It was with a whole group. I was reading first, so I didn't have much time to introduce it. I said, 'this is from my memoir, Desperado's Wife. It's the story of my marriage to a prisoner.' The minute I said that, three quarters of the room shut down. At the end of the reading, the moderator invited people to come up to the writers and buy their books. No one came up and talked to me.

What I should have said is, 'I know this will surprise some of you.There was a time in my life if somebody had said this to me, I would have been surprised too.' They must have thought, She must be crazy. In a conservative environment, I think it's a harder wall to climb, even though I bet there were a couple of people in that room who have a relationship to a person in prison. But you're not allowed to talk about it.

Q: Despite the differences in your backgrounds, you were from a loving, middle-class family and close to your parents, why do you think you fell in love with Will?

A: I think there was a physical attraction. He was smart. He was really charismatic and he was really interested in the things I was interested in. He was thoughtful. He's the person who said to me the first day, 'You should talk to the prisoners' wives and children because they understand prison better than anybody, and they never hurt anybody.' It was such a smart idea. It also made me feel totally compassionate toward him. Every guard, every administrator, every other inmate wanted to talk about themselves. It made me like him. And then I fell in love with the girls [Will's daughters]. When it became the whole family, it wasn't just him I was in love with. That both complicated things and deepened things for me. I didn't have children and they really became my children.

The other thing was that, because so quickly people turned against us, it became that highly romantic, 'it's us against the world.' If people hadn't been so devoted to tearing us apart, who knows what would have happened?

Q: How did your colleagues at the newspaper react, and your friends and your parents, when they learned you were involved with an inmate?

A: My newspaper had always been independent and then a syndicate bought it. Everybody was a little freaked out about their job. I was a freelancer, so in some ways I was immune to the tension in the city room and insensitive to it, too. I was a cocky thing. I also hadn't had any experience with corporate takeovers. Had it happened at a time when my old boss had been there, I don't think anybody would have been shook. I'd always been allowed to write whatever I wanted to write. The new publisher was a totally different breed -- very wealthy, successful, living in a bubble, and he was totally freaked out by this thing.

One thing that happened was, after the first story I wrote, Will sent me flowers at the paper. There must have been 10 bouquets. It was crazy romantic. People I worked with saw the flowers and said, 'What's going on?' I said, 'Look, I've been talking with this guy, and I really like him.' Then my publisher took me aside in this fatherly way and said he was worried about me. That infuriated me. Being treated like I was crazy made me crazy. I got rebellious and angry and temperamental.

There was this part of me that thought, I can reveal what's going on. They were truly engaged in criminal activity, but nobody cared. That's one of the problems with prisons. Things go on in prisons all the time people don't care about. If you're just a regular Joe, you think, 'They're in prison, they deserve what they get.' So that frustration has stayed with me. I think the way we treat people in prisons says a lot about who we are.

I have a student who was sentenced to 22 years for shooting a gun, and he did not kill anybody. What we do is madness.

Because I cared about this person and I cared about his mom and his kids, I became isolated from my previous crew of people. There were a few people who remained stalwart friends. My parents had a really hard time for about a year. My mother's not living anymore, but my father is an extraordinary man. It was always really hard for him, and he was always fair and kind. Interestingly, he read the book and bought copies for everybody else, which was huge. I did not expect him even to read it, much less ask his friends to read it.

Q: What did you learn about yourself by writing the book?

A: I learned about relentless I am. When I find out I'm going to do something I do it. I also think I learned how mad and isolated I did become at a certain point. I had my eyes and heart set in one direction, and I was not looking outside of that direction. I truly loved him and I truly loved the girls. When I committed myself to them, I committed myself to them. I think it's a good thing. I have this wonderful husband now. But it wasn't a horror I had to have end. It was my life.

Q: You wrote the book without showing it to your former husband. Can you talk about why you decided not to?

A: I believe that when you're writing a memoir, you're writing your story. I think other people's input is not the point. The point is to explore your experience of something. So had I shown it to him, I am sure there are things he remembers quite differently. I'm sure he would have had a different take. That's partly why I didn't show it to him. I thought he would get upset I was writing it. We haven't had a conversation about it since the book's been out, but he did say to me he thought I behaved with integrity in the world, and he thought it would be a book with integrity.

There are people in it who say [to me], 'It didn't happen like that.' But it's not their story, so they can write their own memoir. (laughs) If you think that way, you're always editing rather than writing. I don't show anything to anybody, and I don't ask anybody for their opinion, except other writers to get feedback on the writing.

Q: You ended up self-publishing the book. What was the reaction from traditional publishers to the book? Why do you think they didn't publish it?

A: Most of the rejections were: 'beautifully written, compelling story, nobody wants to read this book.' People didn't know what to do with it. It still sort of amazes me. Prison stories are in now. [laughs] Orange Is the New Black. Sesame Street has a new character who has an incarcerated parent, It's like hot, kind of. Every review I've gotten from people I don't know, people really like it. I'm really happy that I put it out.

The paper in Kingston did a review of it and this big feature article. Twenty years later, here's this beautiful review of my book. So that was kind of wonderful.

Q: Let's talk about Couric. How did you land on her show? And what was it like? You were on a segment about prisons with Phil Spector's wife Rachelle.

A: The producer who picked the book called me over a year ago. She had done a bunch of prison stories. She had met a number of women who married men inside, who were articulate and intelligent. She wanted to do that show. She found my Modern Love piece, so she called and we had this great conversation. At the time, my book was out with editors. So it's July of 2012, she calls: 'OK, I'm ready to book you. When's the book coming out?' In fact that same week I'd gotten a rejection from The Feminist Press. At that point, I thought it's going to take a year if somebody buys it. If I'm going to be on Katie, I need to have a book. That's when I decided to self-publish. Then that producer left to join CNN. Finally, three producers later, suddenly, in late June, they called again. 'We're ready to feature you.'

Q: What did Katie ask you?

A: I don't remember exactly what she asked me. [laughs] I think I made sense, I think I was articulate. I smiled. I had good clothes. And my beloved cousin who was in New York, he and his wife came. It was really great. They put them in my line of vision so I could see them in the audience. It is a little bit of a blur. That's why I'm excited to see it and a little nervous.

There was one really wonderful moment. I wanted to talk about prisoners' families. When they told me I was going to be on with Rachelle Spector [the wife of murderer and music producer Phil Spector] it wasn't clear what their interest was. Whenever people talk about women and prisoners, they talk about Menendez and about the serial killer people and the women who marry them. Those are women who marry celebrities. There are many more millions of people who are in prison who are not celebrities and are married to regular old people. I was hoping to have the opportunity to say something like that. In the second segment, it was me and Casey Jordan.

Katie said to Casey, 'Let's talk about this. Lyle has been married twice since he's been in.' First thing out of Casey's mouth was, 'Well, Katie, let me make an important distinction here. The women who married those people are not like women like Amy.' And she pointed to me. At that moment, I thought I'm safe here. They're not out here to make me look like a mad woman. I felt so respected -- not just for myself but all these other women I know. It was this great moment.

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