In 2014, novelist Leslie Schwartz was sentenced to 90 days in Los Angeles County Jail for a DUI and battery of an officer. It was the most harrowing and holy experience of her life.
Following a 414-day relapse into alcohol and drug addiction after more than a decade clean and sober, Schwartz was sentenced and served her time with only six months' sobriety. The damage she inflicted that year upon her friends, her husband, her teenage daughter, and herself was nearly impossible to fathom. Incarceration might have ruined her altogether, if not for the stories that sustained her while she was behind bars--both the artful tales in the books she read while there, and, more immediately, the stories of her fellow inmates. With classics like Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome to contemporary accounts like Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, Schwartz's reading list is woven together with visceral recollections of both her daily humiliations and small triumphs within the county jail system. Through the stories of others--whether rendered on the page or whispered in a jail cell--she learned powerful lessons about how to banish shame, use guilt for good, level her grief, and find the lost joy and magic of her astonishing life.
Told in vivid, unforgettable prose, The Lost Chapters uncovers the nature of shame, rage, and love, and how instruments of change and redemption come from the unlikeliest of places.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
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Day two of processing in. I have not yet had anything to drink or eat. We stand there-a line of twelve women-in a freezing open warehouse that is so huge you could put a volleyball court inside of it. We are nude while deputies with guns order us to squat and cough while they shine flashlights up our asses and vaginas. The woman next to me, probably in her forties, is on her period.
"I'm bleeding," she says. She is crying softly.
"Shut up and squat," her deputy says.
I watch her menstrual blood flow to the floor.
A rabbi who I spoke to for comfort in the days leading up to my surrender to Century Regional Detention Facility said, "They can take your clothes, but they can't take your dignity."
He was wrong.
I know this now as I comply with orders in this barnlike structure. It is intolerably cold and dark and cavernous. I am not afraid. I am outraged.
After they shine their flashlight up me, hands on their guns, then order me to give up my clothes and put their plastic underwear and size triple-X blues on, the God I think I know is incinerated. A rogue hatred settles into my spirit and makes a rat's nest of that small part of me where I store such things. Even in the years to come, I cannot release the memory of such indignity, the exposure of my most private body, under threat of gun and billy club, to people who collect a paycheck for probing me there.
There is a reason people use the cattle metaphor when speaking about jails. When I am dressed in my blues and shoes two sizes too large for me, I am marched back with the others, again, into the holding cell. Except when in the strip-search area, I have been in this holding cell for nearly two days, stuffed full of women sitting on the urine-soaked floor. The cell is packed. There must be a hundred of us shoved into a space the size of a garden shed. The other three "holding" cells are also exploding with bodies, so many that the barred doors-throwback to an earlier time before steel firewalled doors-cannot be locked. I still have not eaten. I have not had a drink. I don't know what time it is. The clock on the wall is stuck at 2:37.
Hours pass by, each minute an entire anthem to human depravity. At one point, a young woman scowls at a huge, butchy guard. The guard tells her, "Wipe that off your face." The young woman says, "Fuck you." It happens so fast-she is dragged from the holding cell and handcuffed. She kicks out, flailing, and is tased and hauled away. I have seen people discard trash with more sensitivity. In that moment, the memory of my last arrest, the violence of it, comes to the surface. I am momentarily unable to breathe as I shove it down and away, to be dealt with later.
While in holding, one woman braids my hair for me. She is very thin and frail. Another offers to trade shoes. Hers are too small for her, but they fit me perfectly. A third offers me a spot on the bench, moving over to make room for my tiny body. In jail, where overcrowding is the norm, it pays to be small. When lukewarm milk and plastic-wrapped meat-product burritos arrive, my stomach turns. I give mine to the prostitute next to me.
I am almost six months clean and sober and I spend the time in holding staring in amazement at the junkies and prostitutes, thinking about how I got here. It is not easy, because due to the blackout all I remember of it is the beating I took at the hands of LAPD-a relentless memory that invades my thinking with a stubborn regularity, like a drumbeat that never stops. For 414 days until, miraculously, I stopped drinking and using, I lived in a state of chronic blackout. According to neuroscientists, the alcohol- and drug-induced blackout is not simply a case of memory loss. People who suffer from blackouts never retrieve their memories because there are no memories to retrieve. The mind-altering substances in high doses interfere with the way the brain processes and makes memories. In a blackout, because of the drugs and/or alcohol, no memories are ever recorded by the brain. It is as if your life never happened.
This would not be true for the people I most damaged by my drinking and using. They remembered everything.
As I sit there, waiting, waiting, waiting to be processed, I try to hold onto the thought that at least I am sober. I am sober as they pull me out of the cell to take my mug shot. It will be my fourth one and, I know, my last. I understood then, after having my photo taken by police over and over again, why in some cultures it is believed that photographs steal your soul. After that, they fit my wrist with a band. It looks like an industrial-grade hospital band, but it is secured with unbreakable grommets. The deputy puts it on too tight. I am skin and bones, and it rubs my wrist, already torn and scarred by handcuffs, raw and bloody. The wristband contains my name and booking number and a barcode. I don't know what the barcode is for until one day in my last module one of the deputies scans it with a handheld device and every piece of information you could ever want about me-age, criminal charges, release dates, etc.-pops up on his small portable screen.
To know that my identity has been reduced to a wristband pains me. I struggle against losing my freedom, against having these twenty-two-year-old deputies lord over me, as if I am nothing. They send me back to holding and now there are even more of us. It must be Saturday night, though who could tell? Time itself no longer exists. Only thoughts of time are alive. The time I am wasting is the most painful rumination; it haunts me. The time I am away from my husband and daughter is an unbearable notion. The time I am not writing or gardening. All these thoughts, yet I cannot gain a perspective of time. As Augustine of Hippo said, some sixteen hundred years ago about time, "If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know."
I just know it must be later now, the animal hours of a Saturday night. The women seem drunker. Some are clearly tweaking. More prostitutes have arrived. It is a sea of black and brown faces. The white women are few and far between, maybe one or two who look like me. Housewives, college graduates, people who live near fancy coffee shops and wear Lululemon. When we catch each other's eyes, we turn away, as if we know each other and are embarrassed to be caught seen in this place. Some of the women sleep sitting up. I can't. I am pretty sure I won't sleep for the next six weeks.
A few hours later, I am told to line up-for what, I don't know. After about half an hour of standing there, I am ushered into a room where they take my X-ray. They are looking for TB. It is clear the technician hates being there. He just wants to go home.
"Hurry up," he says to each and every one of us when he is done. "I don't have all day."
After about another hour-maybe five, though without clocks, it is difficult to tell-they finally call me. I am not a name anymore, but a number: 4261531. I am moving out of processing and into medical, the next step on the way to permanent housing. I line up with about twenty other women. Jail is confinement, but when it's not confinement, it's lining up along red stripes on the ground and then walking along the green line to the next place. They march us to a large bin where inmates in jail clothes different from the rest of us hand us our bedding. I learn these inmates are trustees who "work" in the modules. Our bedding consists of a thin, torn blanket. Rolled up inside I am supposed to find a sheet, a nightgown, thermals, and men's tube socks. I don't. There are no pillows and no pillowcases. No one gets those.
Holding my roll-up, I wait in line. Again. For god knows how long. Time has changed since I've been in here. It has slowed so far down it feels as if it's stopped. What is my daughter doing now? My husband? My best friend, Anadel? Is anyone walking the dog? Is it daylight? Or is it dark? Einstein's famous line comes to mind: "The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion." This has never been truer. The now that I live in isn't anything like the now that my beloveds occupy. Theirs is different space. Time, as Einstein showed us, is relative. If my family and friends are locked into my experience by their empathy, the now they experience is swifter, kinder, freer. And what they experience of time, they do so wearing their own underwear.
Finally after another hour of standing, roll-up in arms, we are marched to medical. I do not know yet that in the thirty-seven days I will spend here out of my ninety-day sentence, once I am in "permanent housing" I will actually be moved five times. Movement is essential for control. It disrupts. It causes anxiety and fear. It limits the chances for friendships and alliances.
As I stand in medical, waiting to process to my first locked cell, I remember one piece of advice a nun I had spoken to gave me. She was the former chaplain at Lynwood, and someone I knew gave me her number.
"Take the bottom bunk if you can. The jail is colder than a meat locker. The top bunk is coldest."
The icy refrigerator that is jail has lodged into the sinews of my 104-pound body. When I am assigned a cell, I make a fast walk of it for the bottom bunk, heeding the nun's advice. The bunkie I will share this five-by-ten locked concrete cell with is right behind me. I can feel her breath. She, too, is racing for the bottom bunk. I get there first and claim the lower, warmer metal plank of the bed. But immediately I feel terrible that I have won this small victory because it comes at a cost to her. I lie there, guilty.
My bunkie is a beautiful twenty-year-old heroin addict who is kicking. Almost immediately she is shitting and throwing up. I am not upset by this. I have been there. I understand. I blame my addiction partly on my empathy, because empathy hurts. I always viewed my tenderness with unfriendliness. All my life, even as a kid, especially as a kid, I'd felt broken by a sixth sense that the world was hard, that people and animals suffered needlessly, that base human nature tended toward cruelty. My empathy seemed innate, as true to me as the color of my eyes. It was a total liability in life. Until I started really drinking and using drugs, I wasn't capable of the toughness it seemed you needed to stay alive, to compete and win, win, win. My skin felt perennially inside out. But once I could hide out behind substances, I found merciful release. Only then was it easier not to care about other people, to play games and get along. But strangely, in jail I will learn that empathy is my greatest asset.
Melissa and I are exactly the same height and weight and coincidentally live in the same neighborhood "on the outs." She is second-generation Cuban, thirty-three years younger than me. I will be the minority in jail, both because I am white and because I am older.
As I lie on my metal slab, shivering, I pray even though at this point I have no faith. Prayer is habit, from an earlier time, before God vanished during strip search. Please show me that this gets better. Please. All I can see is the halo of those horrible orange jail lights shining grimly outside on the concrete building. At least the lights tell me it is night-but of what day, I no longer know. I have never felt more alone, more devastated in my entire life. Never before. Never after. Not even in the worst part of my addiction, when I was isolated and dying, did I feel this alone.
Both Melissa and I are shivering. She has the added burden of being dope sick. She has to get up repeatedly and vomit. Between these episodes we talk. I am needy. To feel real, I must talk to someone. Anyone. I would have talked to Vlad the Impaler if he were my bunkie. "What is it about the quality of blood you most admire?" I might have asked.
"Are you an addict?" she asks.
"Six months clean and sober," I say. I feel the unblunted cut of this sobriety as if I am being eviscerated from the inside out. Everything is too bright, too loud, too frightening, yet I am determined to walk through this without drugs or alcohol. Before, I would have picked up over a broken shoelace.
"I'm sorry for the . . ." She points to the toilet, where she has just had diarrhea.
"Oh no . . . I've been there . . ."
"Yeah," she says. It is hard not to hear a world in that word. Longing. Regret.
She is the sweetest woman with the tiniest voice. She is soft-spoken in a way that makes me think she had long ago learned not to make too much space for herself in the world. I need to keep talking to her, to alleviate the bleak sense of isolation. She tells me she is here on a warrant, that she hopes to go to court the next day and be released. She prays that they don't make her spend the weekend in jail before she can see the judge. We both know they will.
We are silent for a long time. Then I break the silence.
"I'm afraid they will call you first and I will be alone."
"Don't be afraid," she says. Years later, I still hear her voice exactly as it was.
But the fear of being alone with my thoughts is unshakeable and will follow me throughout my incarceration. The loneliness is palpable. A center-in-your-stomach loneliness, a motherless loneliness, one made worse because like all of me, it, too, is shackled. It can't take a walk. It can't be soothed by love. It is there to fend for itself.
Excerpted from "The Lost Chapters"
Copyright © 2018 Leslie Schwartz.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Processing In 9
Chapter 2 Pregnant Module 29
Chapter 3 Pregnant Module 59
Chapter 4 Exit Module 85
Chapter 5 EBI Module: Dayroom 125
Chapter 6 EBI Module: Lockup 161
Chapter 7 EBI Module: Lockup 177
Chapter 8 EBI Module: Last Days 201
Chapter 9 Processing Out 229
About the Author 251