"Modern Love" Provides A Helpful Post-Valentine's Reality Check

For anyone who's wondered about the psychology of women who fall in love with prisoners, this week's "Modern Love" tells us that it's sometimes like the psychology of any woman in love!

Amy Friedman's essay, "Kept Together by the Bars Between Us" is apparently adapted from the laugh-a-minute sounding anthology Stricken: The 5,000 Stages of Grief, so you know it's not going to end happily. But it's a pretty fascinating glimpse into the kind of relationship many of us have probably wondered about.

The author meets her husband when doing a story on the prisons of upstate New York and Ontario; he is serving a 13 year sentence for a drug-related murder. As she explains it, "The fact that we ultimately fell in love always arouses gasps of disbelief, but there wasn't much to it. We fell in love the way people do, the same way I had fallen in love with other men." Although Friedman's friends are shocked at the romance and the polarity of their existences, in fact it's made clear that he is not an "average" prisoner, and that their backgrounds are less alien than one might imagine: "He had grown up in a middle-class family; one sister was a doctor, another a businesswoman. His mother was wonderful. He was an athlete who took a wrong turn - a terrible turn."

While the strength of their commitment is clear - they marry, Friedman takes in his teenage daughters, she buys a home near the prison, she endures the indignities of prison life, and they talk daily for seven years - in some ways the relationship remains shadowy, perhaps a natural consequence of its unusual nature.

My friends Kate, Diane and Anndale and my mother and father, all of whom had visited him in prison, understood why I loved him. They knew his rich voice and infectious laugh. They spoke of how he lit up whenever he had visitors.

We don't really get a sense of the nature of their connection, their shared interests or views or any of the 'normal' currency of a relationship: but perhaps that is the point. Friedman acknowledges the obvious appeal such a romance can have to one's romantic side or ego, but reading about her total commitment to the marriage, it's impossible to dismiss it as anything less than real.

When he is paroled, after the long years of waiting, her husband abruptly tries to end the marriage. "All night long on New Year's Eve, he explained, he had lain in his cell thinking about us, about what was ahead, how he couldn't do this - saddle me with a husband who faced years of parole, who couldn't earn much money, who was a nobody, a burden." The reader is left confused - but then, one imagines the author was, too, despite having been told about the panic that can set in when prisoners face freedom. They try to make it work, but he slides into "a deep pool of depression and anger" and they don't stay together. It's a deeply troubling conclusion to what we, as readers, want to be a story of love triumphing over odds. What one comes away with, though, is not so much a feeling of sadness, although that's there, as a feeling that those seven years of tortured love were not something to have been missed. That's probably a testament to Friedman's unsentimental writing; while we may not understand the relationship much more by the essay's end, we believe it.

Kept Together by the Bars Between Us [New York Times]