If you are in the Los Angeles area, be sure to catch Keri Blakinger at Stories in Echo Park on June 7th at 7 PM PST. If you are in San Francisco, she will also be at Booksmith in Haight-Ashbury on June 8th at 7PM PST.
Often overlooked, ignored and damned, the cycle that throws people in the prison system and spits them out is a calamitous yet integral part of the American experience. People who find themselves at the short end of the stick—usually poor, uneducated and of a minority race—find themselves worse off, excommunicated from society and filled with more trauma and neglect. Keri Blakinger was not poor, was highly educated and white, yet found herself in the same spot and was treated in the same cold and dehumanized fashion. In prison, as Blakinger points out, “You become a number.”
Blakinger joins host Robert Scheer on this week’s Scheer Intelligence episode to paint a picture of a first hand experience of the American prison system. Her book, Corrections in Ink: A Memoir details her time behind bars and her remarkable resurgence after the fact. This resurgence, however, is usually not the case for people coming out of the prison cycle and Blakinger attempts to use her knowledge to garner compassion and empathy for those who ended up like her. “If you put someone in prison and cut them off from any support network they have, put them in a position where they’re going to lose any sort of job or housing that they have… put them in a position where they’re exposed to violence and routinely dehumanized and traumatized. That’s just not a recipe for creating successful community members afterwards,” she says.
Blakinger understands that feeling of being a number, an object in such an intimidating environment. Through her book, she reveals the inadequacies of prison and how rehabilitation is never the goal, so people never fully heal or understand their wrongs. They cannot become productive members of society after their due time because they are not guided towards being one. “I hope that people walk away from my book not only understanding that people in prison can be of value and can be successful after incarceration, but also understanding why it is that more of them do not have these outcomes,” Blakinger says.
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Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests as well as the experience. And that’s Keri Blakinger and the book is called Corrections in Ink: A Memoir. And it’s by now a well-known book, it came out in hardcover a year ago. The paperback edition is out now. And I have to admit, I did not read the book until the last few days and was blown away by it. So that’s a self-criticism, I should have done this podcast a long time ago. I also want to promote not only getting this book and a terrific writer. I don’t have to, it’s not only my endorsement Keri’s now professional journalist has won awards for her writing as well as this book, for her journalism. But I do want to say, you know, this prison situation, America, the rate of incarceration that we have, the largest prison system in the world, and basically we’re talking about a situation that most of us do not observe, do not want to think about it. These are, we assume, throwaway people. They probably deserve it and so forth and so on. And one connection I have with your book is I happened to get to know Nelson Rockefeller. I should mention Keri served time, two years in jail and in prison in upstate New York. She got quite a bit of publicity as the Cornell Ivy League student who got busted for selling drugs. And, you know, it’s an incredible, compelling story, but really basic to it, while I was reading it, was I thought, well, wait a minute, you’re somebody who had what we used to call a mental problem or a development problem. You were suicidal, you actually attempted it. You were in a whole lot of pain and where you belong and where you’re connected with. And drugs were one form of treatment, along with maybe killing yourself. And you really were a product of a radical shift in policy where we decided to have this war on drugs, starting with really Nelson Rockefeller in the state where you were imprisoned. And I remember when he was vice president talking to him about that, because after he’d been governor and he was smug, he was proud, he thought he’d done the right thing. Tough love. Your book is a book of, you know, maybe some people would say, well, it’s only a couple of years, but a couple of years in hell for most of us. Couple of years in hell. And I kept thinking, What? You know, not that anybody necessarily deserves to be in jail and certainly not in just a, you know, a jail that doesn’t really care about their future development or take them seriously. But, you know, in your situation, you were crying out for help for… And I should throw in here, you were not typical of the prison population. You came from a more privileged background. Your father, who you don’t really, maybe we could start with that. You don’t really write much about him, but he was a product of Harvard Law School and so forth. Your mother was a professional. So why don’t you just take us to the beginning?
Keri Blakinger: Well, you covered a lot in that introduction. But actually before I go into more about me, I actually want to jump off of something you said there about, you know, people, you know, whether I deserve to be in prison. And I try to, when I talk about prison and incarceration now, I try to encourage people to frame it not around sort of what people deserve, but what prison serves. Like sort of what is the goal of prison and does that actually serve that purpose? Because I think that when you make the conversation about, like, does this person deserve to be incarcerated and is that punishment the thing that we want to give them like that can be an easier answer for some people to say, well, yes, this person needs to be punished. But looking at whether the punishment that we give actually serves any sort of public safety purpose is often actually a different question. Because if you put someone in prison and, you know, cut them off from any support network they have, you know, put them in a position where they’re going to lose any sort of job or housing that they have, take away any sort of shred of stability they might have in their lives and put them in a position where they’re exposed to violence and routinely sort of dehumanized and traumatized. That’s just not a recipe for creating successful community members afterwards. And that’s a separate question from what a person deserves in terms of do they deserve a punishment. I think that one component of prison that has historically gotten less attention is whether the things that we’re doing to people behind bars actually improve public safety in the long run, because if they make people leave more damaged and traumatized with fewer resources, then it’s actually not sort of serving the public safety purpose that we might tell ourselves it is. So I think an important part of the conversation has nothing to do with who deserves prison or not. Both.
Scheer: Well, I was actually going in a different direction. It’s not the question whether who deserves or even ultimately how to make us safer. But how do you, in your case, how do you prevent it from happening in the first place? And you have, I forget exactly I wrote it down here, something you said in your book, and I know you said prisons are filled with people who are troubled, not terrible. And you talked about the number that started out in foster homes or experienced abuse or, you know, really didn’t have much of a chance. And so I will get up to the end part of that story, rehabilitation and what can you do in the prisons. But I want to start earlier with you. And how could society— and I don’t give away the whole book—but you know, you were somebody who had lots of opportunities. You’re obviously incredibly smart by the standards of the meritocracy. You can cream any exam that you look at the book, you’re very good at math and everything, obviously language skills. Right? And you were somebody who, we should talk about that quite a bit, were a talented athlete enough to think about getting to the Olympics, got into national finals and so forth. You could perform on every level and still you were failed. And then when I think of people who don’t have all of those opportunities or skills, and then you really wonder why does this discussion always sort of start with when the so-called crime has been committed? You know, and in your case, I think the book demands an answer of why did you and presumably quite a few other people like yourself not get the assistance, the help or what the understanding, you know, how can you hold an 18 year old or a 16 year old responsible? And you described your classmates. You describe this world of the drug community. I’m sure it applies to most people who end up in trouble. No?
Blakinger: Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s true. That by the time that most people end up behind bars, that there are systems that have failed them in some capacity. And, you know, I don’t think that means that I know what the answer is, though, because to some degree, like having the sort of a singular answer to that would mean like having an answer to like mental illness and addiction. And, you know, these are sort of bigger, I mean, these are big problems that have obviously plagued humanity for centuries. So I’m not sure that I necessarily have the answer. But, you know, I do think that what my experience and all the sort of reporting that I’ve done after that, all the work I’ve done since as a journalist shows, is that the some of the default interventions that we use as of now are clearly not working because I think it doesn’t take a whole lot of explanation, I think, to understand that prison is not the, you know, best evidence based treatment for addiction or suicidal depression or anything of that nature, you know.
Scheer: But why do we have the two largest imprisoned population and, you know, why does it in its net get this range of people. Somebody who spent their time in a bad foster home situation, someone who didn’t have the mental ability to survive. I mean, all the people we meet in your book and, you know, and as I say in your case, you know, once you use the word mental illness, it doesn’t mean you have the answer, but it means the criminalizing of behavior and leaving that is the only option and then, you know, I have to get across what I found compelling about your book is how can… I’ve only spent a few days in jails and so forth. I mean, you know, the idea that one spends years in this situation, which one thing is very clear in your book, it’s not calculated to produce better citizens. It’s not calculated to obtain justice. It’s not, I mean, there’s no measure of that. Whether it works or not, no one seems interested. I mean, you paint a picture of, you know, throw away the key, lock them up. You know, no accounts as the way the system treats it. I think that’s what’s compelling about the book.
Blakinger: I think one thing that would be surprising to listeners here maybe is that if you read that book, it sounds like when you sort of step back and think about it all, it sounds horrible. And this is a New York women’s prison, right? But when I moved to Texas after that and was reporting in Texas and obviously I think Texas prison conditions are routinely worse. And then I moved here. And I think that L.A. jail conditions are worse than anything that I describe in that book by far. And I think that maybe people who are litigating within that world or are very immersed in that world on a daily basis might not be surprised by that. But I think that a lot of people that I’ve talked to here might not have a sense of how bad the situation is here, first of all. And I think that a lot of people who read my book might think that it doesn’t get a lot worse than that, but it does routinely, despite as dark as my book is, I think that that is one of the easier prison experiences to have, honestly.
Scheer: Well, what struck about your book and I’d like you to talk about your journalism, because it’s compelling in that respect. And it just demolishes the idea of no account people. You know, your reporting has shown you have, you know, okay, go through some of… You’re now working at the Los Angeles Times. You were working with the Marshall Project, which is where we get a lot of our information, a very good agency activity which tells us what’s going on. What I’m trying to get at with this interview, with this podcast and the reason I want people to read your book, I think it is about as irresponsible as we can be as a people to think we can take a subset of our population, lock them up, throw away the key, not care what happens to them, not take any responsibility. And, you know, the last time I was in prison was to see Kevin Cooper, a guy on death row at San Quentin. And, yeah, some of those folks on death row, you know, probably did heinous things and so forth. I happen to think Kevin Cooper is innocent. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a situation right there in Marin County in some of the highest real estate in the country, and people seem to be unaware, you’ve just imprisoned this large number of people and you don’t really care what happens to them. And what reading your book, I want to give the title again, Corrections in Ink: A Memoir and tell us about corrections in ink, you know, is a compelling case that our indifference or a notion of throwaway people is just absurdly irresponsible, you know, immoral. And I think that’s the point of your book, is that not?
Blakinger: I think that’s a big part of it. I think that I definitely wanted people to think about what the prison system does versus what we tell ourselves that it does. And, you know, I know you said you wanted to get to the sort of aftermath later, but I also think that one of the things I really hope people come away from it with is, you know, obviously I’m a success story. Like I managed to do the whole re-entry process ultimately successfully and get my life together. And I think on the one hand that shows that it can be done, that people in prison can make something of themselves. But second of all, I think so many of the stories I tell along the way highlight the systemic racism and the barriers that make it so difficult for so many other people to have the kind of outcomes that I’ve had. Like I have benefited enormously from privilege that a lot of people behind bars do not have. So I hope that people walk away from my book not only understanding that people in prison can be of value and can be successful after incarceration, but also understanding why it is that more of them do not have these outcomes.
Scheer: Well, let me ask you a question. Why… You describe a prison system that is not accountable to any reasonable goals of what you’re trying to accomplish here. Your daily description is one of arbitrariness, of pettiness, meanness, indifferent to actually that you’re dealing with human beings. That is not a model that we respect around the world. We all talk about, Oh, no, in the Scandinavian countries, it’s much more enlightened. Yes, we’d like to believe in rehabilitation and prison reform and so forth. And here and in your case, here’s somebody who has an Ivy League, I guess Cornell’s Ivy League isn’t it? You know, could present well and so forth. But even there and even with your having, you know, a family that’s well-connected, nobody seemed to really care about your well-being, your development, your future, including the fact that you had hepatitis, you had a serious medical issue that should be treated with or it’s going to endanger your future. There seemed to be no interest in taking your skills. Yes, you worked as a gym assistant instructor, but they know you stopped being a human. Is that a fair, I mean, I’m reading this book, I go the human gets, this person gets lost here. They’re just, you know, you’re not even allowed to have a real name.
Blakinger: Yeah. You become a number. It’s very dehumanizing. And I think that, you know, on the one hand, it is not surprising when you sort of think through the, you know, the mass part of mass incarceration. Like it’s not surprising when you have this many people treated like objects that they become essentially numbers. And I think it’s also not surprising that it’s so common to see so little compassion at every turn because, you know, people are routinely viewing you like an object, essentially, you know, an item in a factory that they just have to manage to keep alive, hopefully. And that sort of the only the only goal here. But, you know, I think that there’s also something to be said for what message that sends to the person who’s incarcerated. Like, again, going back to sort of what purpose prison serves, treating someone like an object or a number for years doesn’t set them up for success to behave as a productive human afterwards. You know, treating a person like an object doesn’t teach them how to be a good human.
Scheer: So let me ask you, because in the end of your book, you introduce us to people you’ve met and some of what happened to them and so forth. And you deal with this question of white privilege and racism and so forth. And that’s a large part of the story. I mean, one thing that’s compelling about your book is that it even happens to you. Okay. But when you were someone who didn’t go to Cornell and isn’t white and comes from a more impoverished background and so forth, there’s actually a sense of vindication on the part of a large part of the society. Well, we told you so. These people are flawed. They’re not deserving. It’s an illiberal illusion that they could all get educated and so forth. And in your book, at the end, you really sort of examine that. I mean you go through a lot of soul searching about that. And I wanted to ask you how that relates now to your work as a journalist, because a part of being a journalist is to be a voyeur, to look at other people’s problems. You’re in this interesting position when you’re writing about the Los Angeles County sheriffs, you’ve been on the other side. You’ve seen the consequence. You’ve seen the callousness. One of your more successful stories is holding an officer responsible for rape. Right? So why don’t you talk about that transition to your journalism, which has been much honored, but just the general stance of the journalists is something like the general stance of the overall established society. Those people must be bad, they did something wrong, they are hopeless and look the other way and focus on more positive aspects. You’re in this unique position of being that rare journalist who actually was on the other side on the receiving side.
Blakinger: Yeah, it’s funny because I don’t think that it seemed as unusual to me as it, you know, as it does maybe to journalists of a different generation. I think like this sort of overlap between your personal life and what you’re covering is more accepted now in a way that it wouldn’t have been like 20 or 30 years ago. I think 20 or 30 years ago someone like me would not have been allowed to cover prisons. It would have been seen as a conflict, you know. And, you know, I think that’s actually a really interesting that that was sort of ever the norm because there are so many other ways in which our personal lives have always intersected with what we cover as journalists. You know, most education reporters went to college, you know, and we never thought of that as a conflict. And I think that some of the progress in journalism in recent years has been understanding that just because your experience is not considered like the normal or usual experience or because it’s a minority experience or because, you know, it’s an alternative background into, you know, an alternative path into journalism, that doesn’t mean that it is a conflict. You know, I think, yeah, I so I mean, I’m really grateful that journalism has sort of made that transition. But it’s really interesting to see how different generations will respond to seeing someone with my background in this role. I never set out to do this kind of journalism, actually. My thought was that I was sort of just intuitively not aiming for that because I think on some level I thought that people would think that it was, I don’t know, sort of predictable. Like, of course the felon goes and wants to just cover the felons. And people would see me as a good journalist for being a felon, not just, you know, a credible, good journalist. So I didn’t set out to cover criminal justice, it was only that I sort of accidentally ended up in it when the person who was covering Death Row at the Houston Chronicle retired and my editor was like, Hey, so you’re on, you know, general assignment and breaking news. Do you want a little mini beat on the side and you can start covering the death penalty? And I was like, okay. And it’s actually a, you know, obviously horrifying, but also incredibly, I don’t know, like there’s a really high learning curve, right? Like, it’s a really intricate thing to cover, learning the whole, like habeas and post-conviction process. And I got really wrapped up into learning everything I could about it. But in the process, I also ended up talking to a lot of guys on the row and hearing about their other concerns, which related to conditions and medical care and all of these other things that were broader issues relating to prison. So from that little mini beat, I jumped off and ended up covering prisons in general. And from prisons I sort of expanded into jails and policing and criminal justice more broadly. But that was never what I set out to be. So I sort of only had to reckon with those ideas of what it means to be someone who has done time and is now covering jails and prisons and sort of had to reckon with that as it came up. It wasn’t something I’d ever planned or thought out or dreamed of.
Scheer: Well, but it goes to a question of how do we get information and how do we learn? And one of the arguments for better representation of gender and minorities and so forth in journalism is to have familiarity with issues. And in your book, you’re familiar, you know, you get into a relationship, somebody comes to visit you, who is a correctional officer, right? Lee, I think his name. And, you know, so what we have in this book is knowledge of the system, not a bias. You’re very critical of yourself throughout the book. You’re challenging of your motives. And you stay up all night thinking, how did I make such a mess of my life? And this is not an excuse in any way. I think you’re too hard on yourself, frankly. Because I think it begs a lot of questions about why didn’t you get more support when you were a cutter or were you contemplating suicide or why were they schlepping you off to Olympic practices or something in another city, or why wasn’t the school more attentive? But my point is, well, let me take it back to journalism and what you’re doing now. I teach at the University of Southern California. We have a major, maybe the best journalism school in the country, I think, or one of the best. We have a big school of communication and we have daily crime reports, daily. Because we’re required by the state of California to keep it. So somebody stole a phone or somebody did something else. Sometimes terrible things happen. But there are almost daily reports. And whenever I ask my students, who are these people committing the crimes, what happens to them? Do they get help? Usually it’s, you know, racially predictable. It’s a five foot ten Latino or six foot two African-American, Black male and so forth, there’s almost no attention, just as there’s almost no attention to the homeless people around our campus and so forth. So what I find exciting about your journalism is that you bring some expertise. Right. I mean, that’s what’s missing. Most of us don’t really I don’t know. You know, I read books about it. 93% of the cases are plea bargained. In your book, I get a feeling of what does that mean? Do you go for this option or that option? What choices? What information? You’re befuddled, you’re drugged out. You’re in a bad place to make that decision. Yet these are very consequential, they could get you in a whole lot more trouble. So it seems to me that this is the part where you basically have written a book about one of the most important aspects of our culture, our society, that is also really the least observed. What is this thing? What is this prison industrial complex you have, for instance, the whole idea of placing these prisons in rural areas. You have one where was it, Upstate New York or California, where so many of the prisoners are people of color and there’s one guard.
Blakinger: That was upstate New York.
Scheer: Upstate New York. I’m sure it’s true. Upstate California, you go up to Highway 5 and 99 and there’s one prison after another. It’s a jobs program, you know, for people in a rural area. And so I don’t know. I think your book is a lot about it’s a plea for a more complex, sophisticated, concerned observation of a huge aspect of American society. We’re not talking about a minor theater here, small numbers. So maybe that’s where we should, you know, explain. Because I guess what I got out of your book. I’m pissed off. I feel, wait a minute, why have I….
Blakinger: I’m glad to hear it.
Scheer: You know, first of all, why didn’t I do a podcast on this book a year ago? Oh, I thought maybe it would be depressing. Or haven’t I had enough or you know, So I’m obviously, I’m feeling very self-critical. I don’t think anyone… The book is called Corrections in Ink: A Memoir. Keri Blakinger, and it’s out in paperback now, which means it’s much more affordable it’s available in both Kindle and other forms. And you’re speaking, oh, my goodness, I almost blew this, you’re speaking it to bookstores. This is going to be first carried on KCRW here at NPR, very good NPR station in Santa Monica. And you’re speaking at Stories in Echo Park, and that’s on June 7th from 7 to 8, June 7th. People make it, I’m gonna try to go there. I think this is an issue you have to get engaged with. And we haven’t said anything about the quality of writing. You’re obviously a brilliant writer and the book is, you know, I shouldn’t say it’s a joy to read, but it makes the ideas compelling. It’s really powerful. And about whole areas of life. What does it mean to be a sex worker, for example? Well, let me give the other place Booksmith in San Francisco on June 8th and that’s in the Haight-Ashbury district, which is where a lot of the drug culture started. But I’ll tell you, when I was reading your book, I happened to, my brother in law lives with me, and he was a chipper. I think I can talk about it, he’s talked about, heroin and he, you know, got busted, one time, and he was working at the L.A. Times, actually. And it was interesting because when he was going through rehabilitation or whatever, he was in much better shape than the alcoholics that were in the same place that were… and you write a little bit about AA and everything, and I’m an alcoholic myself, so I’ve had some experience. I haven’t had a drink in about 25 years, but clearly and I’m not defending shooting up or anything, but my brother in law his brain, his body is in far better shape than my alcoholic friends who were drunk while they were working at the L.A. Times, sometimes and had a bottle of whiskey in their drawer and so forth. So I do want to get a little bit back or just a few more minutes on the hypocrisy of this drug war that has, you know, took a real… I mean, we have people in jail right now because they were connected with marijuana, even though it’s now supposedly legal or most part. And there was a cynicism about it. And in particularly, as we all know from the crack cocaine, it was aimed at minority communities. It was about power. But I want to end on that because you really shouldn’t have ever been in any trouble. A sane drug policy. You know, I’m not defending everything you did, you don’t defend it in the book. But, you know, you were in the area there of victimless crime except for the person that’s doing it. So why don’t we talk just at the end a little bit about… Because you were able, actually this is a positive book, let me say you won’t be bummed out reading it. That’s another reason to buy it. And what’s positive about it is you’re a big survivor. You know, your body hasn’t been ravaged by it. You’ve got all the thought processes. I’m not making a recommendation for that, but I think the concept I can get to the old argument of alcohol versus some drugs and so forth. But, you know, we had a big scare campaign about certain, you know, drugs and not about others. So why don’t we conclude by just talking about that? Because you were an amazing I mean, you’d be amazing anyway. But, you know, you obviously got all of these great qualities and somehow you survived this horrible ordeal.
Blakinger: I did survive. There’s a lot to dig into there. But I mean, in terms of the questions of like why some drugs are so demonized and others are not. I mean, I don’t need to sort of unpack the history of that because obviously some of this is about racism and some of it there are sort of specific market or profit motives. But, you know, I do think that it’s nice that we are at a point where that is something that people are more openly questioning why certain substances have been, you know, have carried such hefty penalties and whether that actually in any way correlates to the risk or harm of engaging with those substances. You know, it’s I mean, especially here in California, obviously, there’s been a lot of rethinking of that. Of course, I think it’s also worth noting that as much as the drug war contributed to mass incarceration, to actually make a substantive dent would require a much broader rethinking of how other crimes are dealt with as well. And I think that that’s something that a lot of people don’t quite fully grasp, that, you know, just sort of being like, oh, we’ll get rid of the nonviolent drug felons. We’d still have a huge prison system. And, you know, mass incarceration as such would still exist. So I do think it’s worth also thinking about the fact that there’s a whole range of other crimes that would need to be handled in different ways. Were there to be any sort of real major systemic changes.
Scheer: Well, that’s why let me end on this. That’s why I want to get back to that quote. It’s, I don’t know what page it is, but it’s two thirds into your book where you say prisons are filled with and this is after you’ve had some bad experiences with your cellmates. And, you know, there’s a lot of nuttiness and scary things that happen to you. So you’re not giving a blank check to the behavior of all of your prison inmates. But you say prisons are filled with people who are troubled, not terrible. There’s a lot to think about in that. And, you know, I know you know that because my wife was talking to you, Narda Zacchino, who’s gone into San Quentin 45 times now, to death row and writing about, particularly about, the Kevin Cooper case. But even there on death row, when you see the families visiting with people, when you dig into all of these stories and who ends up, you know, going down a path of violence, or who gets up with, you know, being participating in some shoot up or a hold up of a van or something, and how much plea bargaining went on, how lousy the legal representation that certainly was true in Kevin Cooper’s case. But the Marshal Project gets into a lot of that stuff, you know, And I guess, you know, let’s take it to the the non-drug crimes, you’re right. In a way that’s more easy to justify. You were scared by a lot of the people you ran into. You don’t have illusions about how easily they fit, some of these people, into society. Yet, you know, your book is about human beings and, you know, and one of the ways that more affluent white people can identify with this larger population is through your story. But, you know, maybe that’s a good way to conclude this. What did you learn about human nature? And I want to connect it with the question I’ve been waiting for three days to ask you ever since I started re-reading this book, it’s very weak in a way—I’m not using that pejoratively—It’s scant on your own family struggle. And I kept thinking to myself, Why didn’t this young woman get more support? And what was your anger all about, you know, and what was your… I mean, those are big questions, but your father kind of disappears in the book and your mother’s she’s more of a mystery, right? Yeah. I mean, maybe you could tackle that.
Blakinger: I was not, after about, you know, 17, 18, they sort of disappeared to some extent because I didn’t live at home after that, after I was 17. So I was interacting with them, much less so for large chunks of the book, we did not have a deep relationship. I mean, it’s not that we were not on speaking terms or whatever, it just we weren’t close. And in terms of sort of why I didn’t spend more time on them in the beginning, I mean, twofold. I think part of it is, you know, that’s not I don’t think that they were particularly interested in being a large chunk of this book. And I don’t think that that was necessary or sort of helpful to where I was going with this. You know, I didn’t really want this to be a book that was sort of focused on my childhood or my family or how I got into being addicted to substances. Like I wanted to provide enough that people would understand some context, but I did want the focus of this to be on the prison part, on the jail part, on the prison part, on, you know, the life afterwards. Because I think there’s been a lot of memoirs about addiction and recovery and what leads down that path. But there are not many memoirs at all about women’s prison experiences. You know, there’s Piper Kerman and there’s one or two others. I mean, at the time I was writing this, there was very few. And I really wanted to be able to focus more of the book on that and not sort of get bogged down in all of the before story.
Scheer: Right. And I think the book succeeds incredibly on that level. Like why can’t you get a crossword puzzle and why can’t you, you know, get this soap and why are you I mean, just the petty suffering that becomes massive, as you point out. It’s just accumulation. Why are we dehumanizing people in prison when the whole point is to try to make them whole? It’s exactly the opposite of the healing model. But I do want to push this other thing a little bit. In a way, your personal story, and this is a memoir, is a rebellion against a notion of the American dream. And maybe that’s another book you’re going to write. But you were set up to succeed in the meritocracy. You were set up to be that performer that we celebrate both as an athlete, as a student, right? And there was something about it that you rebelled against. Now, maybe that’s the next book, but I would love to read that book. No, because you were a champion. I mean that as I know, not everybody. You might not. Your partner got to the Olympics. You might have gotten to the Olympics. You qualify, but you could do things. I don’t even know what they are. Triple this and double that and so forth. I tried following it. But you are on a pretty high level from what I read between the lines, you were an excellent student whenever you devoted even, you know, 10% of the time expected you could cream just about any course. You’re obviously a very talented writer. I mean, you know. And what was it about growing up in basically a successful upper middle class America? And you’re not alone. You introduce us to a lot of other people in your high school class and later you meet who are going through that same kind of rebellion. Where drugs would figure into it. I know this is a big question and probably a subject of another book you write, but I can’t get signed off without asking it.
Blakinger: I don’t think that was a conscious rebellion for, say, or like a rebellion against like the American dream. I was a hurt and a hurting teenager you know, I wasn’t trying to become addicted to heroin to subvert the American dream, right? I was struggling with suicidal depression, an intense eating disorder. And, you know, and in the course of that, started doing heroin. So I don’t think that at… I feel like it’s sort of neatly can be framed that way, looking back at it. But I was just a damaged and hurt child struggling with mental health issues. And I think that is really the more driving force there, which is not as, I don’t know, not as sexy and doesn’t feel as satisfying is a way to frame it. But I feel like more and more as I’m older and looking back, I feel that any sort of the sort of teenage rebellion type motive was actually a much, much smaller piece of it than it might have seemed to people looking at it from the outside.
Scheer: But when you say mental health issue and that’s a big concern in the society, and people using legal drugs or drugs that were presented in the having to be legal have swept the nation. You know, you did attempt to commit suicide. Right. I mean, it’s a compelling part of the book. You know, you did jump and you did very disruptive things and you were in a family. I keep getting back to this because you had two very well-educated parents and you were going to schools where you were first private schools and then, I assume, good public schools. And yet your mental illness, the competition to heroin should have been something else. And it clearly didn’t turn out to be ice skating and it didn’t turn out to be good in studies and it wasn’t… You know, if you were in a small minority, then we wouldn’t have to spend time and I’m just saying, I think. The next book really has to examine that, you know, and. You know, Why were you dare I say it, it’s such a lonely child that you finally find your community among the drug pushers and addicts and so forth.
Blakinger: Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I suspect you that will probably not be the subject of my next book. I’ve been toying with what to write next, and I’m thinking more along the lines of reported type narratives. So, yeah, I don’t know, I’ve been working on a really fascinating story involving some guys who play dead in prison, and that is that’s one thing that I’ve been sort of toying with. And I don’t know, I have a few other reported narratives that I think could be really important, stories that could combine some of my first person reporting experience with stories that I have reported on but would really love to tell in greater length. Because let me tell you, after putting out a 336 page memoir, I would like to not talk about me so much in the next book.
Scheer: And I do want to conclude on that, it’s a great memoir. If you happen to be in the Los Angeles area and go to Stories in Echo Park on June 7th, 7:00, we’ll post that on the site. And if you’re in San Francisco on June 8th, Booksmith in the Haight Ashbury. I probably nitpicked too much on this. I think the book is compelling and one of the I don’t know, three or four books that are out there that deal with this incredible, huge problem of the incarcerated that we, most of us want to ignore. So I want to thank you for doing that and creating this important work. And I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting this podcast. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer for putting it all together and getting me to read this book after a number of procrastinations on my part. Diego Ramos for writing the introduction, Max Jones put together the video here and the JKW Foundation memory of Jean Stein, a very important writer, who well I won’t go into her story but wrote about these kinds of problems and experienced them, for providing some funding for this. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.