Seraphic Disclaimer: This post contains some language that is a bit, actually, a lot more graphic than is normally found in Seraphic Secret. So if you are young, under 18, religiously modest, or secularly modest, the following, which deals with life in a women’s prison, might not be appropriate reading matter for you.
In which we meet Eden, a pleasant and amiable mother, lover of classical American literature with a special affection for Jane Austen. Our fine lady is also an accomplished former drug addict, stripper, prostitute and for an extra added attraction, a cold-blooded murderess.
Eden groans in frustration as she awkwardly applies her make-up.
Her fingers shake as she pulls taut her eyelid, tries to draw the eye-liner in a reasonably straight line.
“I been home so long I’ve forgotten how to put on war paint. I should’ve done this before, but time got away from me.”
Home: the inmates in this women’s facility refer to prison as home.
“I appreciate you letting me see your room.”
“Cell, it’s a cell, Mr. Av-e… Av-e-re-re.. uhh, how do you pronounce it?”
Eden nods, tosses her white-blond hair. A trustee, Eden has been chosen by the Prison Supervisor—Warden is so old Hollywood—to show me her cell and serve as guide to the pet program, the subject matter of the film I’ve been hired to write by Show Time.
I immediately understand the choice. Eden is, um, unique. In a population of several thousand female prisoners who are violent, angry, sullen, clinically depressed, grossly overweight, flat-out psychotic, frighteningly masculine, and almost all tattooed like pagan priestesses, Eden is tall, lithe and pleasantly feminine—a surprising quality that should not be a surprising quality in a female prison.
Imagine one of those Roger Corman B movies, a woman’s prison film of the mid-seventies where all the women are unnaturally beautiful, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Eden looks like. Tall and wispy blond with haunting gray-green eyes, Eden has the look of innocence and vulnerability that is a magnet for men.
Which Eden took full advantage of when she set up the fatal ambush.
As for her psychic defects: endless and of course appalling.
“Eden, it’s okay.”
She gazes at me, at my reflection in the tin mirror, taking my measure. It’s a prison look, a visual raking over that is deeply unnerving. Inmates live or die by their ability to judge others correctly.
“Really,” I tell her, “there’s no need. You look just fine without it.”
“You’re lying. Men lie.”
“Eden, I do not lie.”
Eden continues fumbling her make-up. The truth is Eden looks like she’s about to cry as she attempts to get the eye-liner to do what she wants it to do.
“I haven’t done this for like who knows how long,” she confesses. “If I did, the rug munchers would figure I’m up for Mexico and go to town on me.”
“Eden, lose the make-up. We’re wasting time.” I no longer ask, I tell. I am all business now, a screenwriter and producer on a tight schedule.
Heaving a huge sigh of relief, Eden snaps up a Kleenex, pumps thick white gel on the tissue, smears it on her face, removes the make-up.
She studies her naked face in the mirror for a long moment.
Eden looks better now, like a sturdy milk-maid in a Soviet style social realist painting, not like the former stripper, whore, junkie, cold-blooded murderess she is.
The walls of the cell are dull yellow cinder block. There is one narrow window, way up high; it has bars on it, and the pane is two inches thick, bullet proof plastic. There is a shiny steel toilet in the corner. Three paces in one direction, two paces in the other.
Eden’s private world.
I remind myself that the man she murdered has no physical world.
When I tell my wife, Karen, about the project, Within These Walls, she hits me with a level gaze—eyes like chips of coal:
“Not a good idea, Robert. Remember all the time in Sing-Sing doing research for that other script—it was not a healthy experience.”
Your faithful screenwriter shrugs, utterly clueless:
“This is a woman’s prison, how bad can it be? Besides, I am not going to turn down the chance to work with Ellen Burstyn.”
Karen looks at me and half-smiles, tolerantly but with—I sincerely hope—affection.
Evil exists; and face to face, it is a shock to the soul.
The love of my life can foresee the psychological black cloud that is fated to haunt me after conducting my prison research.
There is a reason I’ve been in love with my wife since we were nine-years old. She’s much smarter and level-headed than yours truly.
There are a dozen stuffed teddy bears on Eden’s bunk. Snapshots of three children are taped to the wall right next to her pillows.
“Wanna meet my kids?”
She points to an angelic looking little black girl, about five years old.
Eden’s finger trails along to a photo of a second little girl. She’s got olive skin, high cheekbones and jet-black hair that trails all the way down her spine.
“This is Orenda, her daddy was an Injun. Apache. Met him on a drunk in Tucson. Orenda. She’s eight in this picture.”
“Beautiful name, what’s it mean?”
“I think it means magical power, that’s what the Injun told me, but he was like such a liar, so who knows.”
Eden moves on to the next photo.
“And this is Cody, my big boy.”
Eden rests her forehead on the wall, on a photo of a brooding teenage boy with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Cody looks, well, like trouble. His hair is dyed the color of Pepto Bismol, ink already disfigures his young skin, already there are unfortunate piercings in his nose, his ears, and G-d knows where else. He wears a T-shirt that proclaims: Dead Kennedys Live.
What does that mean?
Three children, three separate fathers.
“They don’t visit me, my kids, I mean.”
“Don’t even know what they look like now. These picture are so old.”
I say nothing.
”I write them letters, every week. I tell them what I’m thinking, wha
t I’m studying. I tell them how I’ve repented, how I’ve found Jesus.”
“Do they ever write back?”
She just looks at me.
Eden has been busy in prison for the past twelve years. She’s earned her high school degree and she’s working towards her college sheepskin.
“It’s hard,” she admits. “I got a lot of catching up to do. Basically, I was like illiterate, dropped out of school in tenth grade and started dancing.”
Eden is not talking about ballet.
“I developed early.”
“They didn’t ask for proof of age?”
Eden studies me for a long moment. I’m getting used to the women here looking at me as if I’m the dumbest man in all creation.
She likes English literature. The great books are all here: Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Tristram Shandy, Middlemarch, and my eyes rest on my late son Ariel’s ZT’L very favorite novel of all time: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
I leaf through the paperback. The spine is cracked, and Eden’s notes are written in a childish, cramped hand in the margins. Eden has highlighted almost every line in the book.
I ask Eden what she likes best about Pride and Prejudice. She ponders a long moment. We exit her cell and make our way to the shed where the inmates train the dogs.
Eden is silent, thoughtful, as we make our way across the yard.
Cindy the CO accompanies us for I am not permitted to go anywhere in the prison unless I am accompanied by a CO.
Cindy, as sharp as they come, immediately picks up on Eden’s pensive mood. Cindy reaches over and flicks a residue of make-up remover off Eden’s chin. Eden doesn’t thank Cindy and Cindy doesn’t expect a thanks. Inmate and CO have a tacit communication that is as powerful as I have ever seen. It’s a fragile relationship, a delicate balancing act that seesaws back and forth a hundred times a day.
Just as we reach the shed where the pet program is situated, Eden halts in her tracks:
“The thing I like about Pride and Prejudice, the thing I like best is how the men and women talk to each other with all this respect. It’s like they get angry and stuff, but they don’t cuss and go at each other serious-like. Men and women in the book, it’s kinda nice.”
To be continued…