Although I have not seen them marketed as such, I’ve been thinking of The Love Prison Made and Unmade (2019) by Ebony Roberts and Writing My Wrongs (2013) by Shaka Senghor as companion memoirs. Senghor told the story of his youth, murdering someone at 19, and nearly 20 years of incarceration, which included the woman he met and dated while in prison, in his book. Roberts was that girlfriend, and her memoir describes her childhood, college experience, and dating Senghor while he was locked up. How could I not call them companion books?
Thankfully, neither author uses the written word to “beat the other to the punch,” or “tell it like it is,” and somehow “win” the reader to his/her side in a lover’s argument. I’ll have no part of that. Both authors treated the relationship with respect. But let me back up.
When Ebony Roberts was a college student at Michigan State University, she got involved in African and African American groups that focused on pride, culture, and human rights. Eventually, armed with a PhD, Roberts started working at a small Detroit school developed for black children, with a curriculum that mirrored her own cultural awakening in college. Additionally, involved in social justice activism, Roberts visits a men’s prison where Shaka Senghor stands out. Convinced they are soul mates, they begin writing letters, then phone calls and visits.
Compared to her violent childhood in Detroit and the boyfriends who criticized her body, Senghor is an educated brother who shows Roberts respect. However, they couple isn’t sure when he’ll be released, and Roberts sinks all of her money into prison phone calls and visits to wherever Senghor is transferred, which can be from 1 to 10 hours away.
Because Roberts sticks to her memory and doesn’t use the book as a chance to get back at Senghor for a relationship that everyone knows is doomed except the people in it, I was given a clear picture of how prisons affect family, not just girlfriends and wives. What it’s like to get the phone call that a locked up loved one is being transferred to the tippy top of the state when the family lives at the bottom, or how long it takes for letters to clear prison security and be delivered, or reading on websites how men are released as different people and that those who met and/or married a man they never knew before incarceration are fools, or how a shake down can make a visitor feel demoralized — Roberts describes such experiences.
Although I finished The Love Prison Made and Unmade rather quickly, finding it hard to put down because the chapters are short and easily readable, I also found myself wanting more. Roberts shares information from letters she kept, sometimes verbatim, and the focus was oftentimes more on what happened than on reflection. How does she feel about herself in that relationship now that she’s looking back? The beauty of a memoir is that the events are hindsight, so if all the author has is memory rather than processing, I start to feel like I’m reading fiction. In fact, I’m listening to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and Celestial’s feelings about Roy being in prison sound like an echo of how Ebony Roberts feels about her own prison lover.
If you enjoyed Writing My Wrongs, you’ll definitely like The Love Prison Made and Unmade. In fact, you get more about Senghor after his release, though there is no closure between the memoirists; the ending is rather abrupt.
I want to thank Kellen @ 29 Chapters for reviewing The Love Prison Made and Unmade and bringing it to my attention.
I suppose they have different publishers so can’t be marketed together, but it’s a (literary) shame the authors didn’t stay together long enough to produce one book with two points of view.
That’s interesting to imagine. Though they did not degrade each other, there were sections in which Roberts has small doubts about how seriously Senghor is taking their relationship, such as when he is about to go before a parole board and is caught with a tattooing needle, which lands him in segregation — not a good look for the parole board.
This sounds interesting. I think I would want to hear more on her current perspective, looking back on the relationship, too. I have to admit to being a bit confounded by people who get into relationships with prisoners so this would be a fascinating perspective.
I have an incarcerated pen pal, but he’s slowly writing less and less. In fact, last time he sent a huge life-like drawing, so I’m wondering if he has some literacy challenges.
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Am I right in thinking that you did some work in prisons? Is that how you got connected?
I taught college classes for a year, but I found the pen pal through “Adopt an Inmate,” an organization that sets up platonic relationships between those incarcerated and those who are not.
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This sounds so interesting, especially with two perspectives on the same relationship… and while reading An American Marriage also! I’m sure that’s quite the reading experience! I think I would be bothered by the lack of reflection here, but otherwise this seems like a very unique story. I’ll be sure to keep it on my radar. And I’m definitely looking forward to your thoughts on Tayari Jones’s novel!
I think one thing that might surprise readers is that prison phone calls are so expensive that many families cannot make them, despite evidence showing that being connected to the outside world gives those incarcerated something to care about, and thus a reason to rehabilitate. It can cost around $10 for a 15 minute call. However, I know activists are working on this problem, and some headway has been made.
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