Doran Larson, an author we published some years ago, is the Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature & Creative Writing at Hamilton College, and has also served as editor of Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America and Director of The American Prison Writing Archive. Working as well with prisoners in maximum security institutions, he recommend we publish Danner Darcleight‘s Concrete Carnival, citing Darcleight’s “verbal dexterity and streetwise insights, his honesty, humor, his narrative skills and an unyielding search for the humanity in all of his subjects announce a writer who deserves a place upon the broad literary landscape.” He also felt that Danner was one of the most exceptional writers he’d ever come across, adding that “Darcleight shows once again that any distinction between American literature and American prison literature perverts our understanding of what America is as a literary enterprise.”
We signed a contract with Danner’s agent a year ago and will be publishing Concrete Carnival at the end of this month. What we hadn’t realized is that we had two remarkable people for the price of one, for Lily Darcleight, the woman he met while in prison and wrote about in his memoir, also had remarkable writing skills. What follows is her blog:
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With an arm slung over my shoulder in an almost conspiratorial fashion, he leaned in and said, “Things will get better from here on out.” These are the words that the head of my Board of Directors said to me on the evening that I was fired from my job. The evening that he and the organization’s attorney sat me down and let me know that the high profile position that I had worked at over the past 30 years, and had performed in a highly competent manner, had come to an end. Just one week before they delivered this surprising news, I had sat in that exact same room with the exact same people being given a 5-year extension on my contract. What could have possibly prompted this turn of events?
You may be thinking I did something illegal. Or unethical. Or immoral. Or that I had engaged in such an egregious act of insubordination that I left the “powers that be” with no alternative but to terminate my employment. You would be wrong on all counts. My crime? I was corresponding with, had visited (on my own time) and had fallen in love with a man who was incarcerated. And apparently that violated some type of morals clause that was hidden in the fine print of my employment contract. You read that correctly – forging a personal relationship with someone who others apparently found “unfavorable” was considered a morals violation.
To say that I was in shock would be an understatement. If you knew me you would know that rendering me speechless is almost impossible, but there I was. Speechless. It was true that over the preceding several months I had been getting to know a man whose address happened to be at the nearby maximum security prison. How I met him was not through some lonely hearts prisoner website, as most people assume. I had visited the prison in an official capacity, met this man and several others as they told their stories of crime, redemption, rehabilitation, and renewal. Long story short, I followed up that official visit with a letter of thanks to one of the men in particular because his history and resulting tragic circumstances mirrored an issue I was experiencing with my own son. I wrote to express gratitude for his willingness to revisit the worst moment of the worst day of his entire life and requested advice as to how I might prevent my son from realizing a similar fate. He wrote back. Through the mail, I got to know a sensitive, intelligent, insightful, and humorous man who was so much more than the sum of his rap sheet. That man was Danner Darcleight. We corresponded in this manner for approximately 6 months before I summoned up the courage for a first in-person visit. It was on my third visit that all hell broke loose.
Because of my professional position, I was a recognized person in the community. Although the prison was a distance from where I worked, I live in rural America and everyone knows everyone else and their business, or they think they do, and they fictionalize what they don’t really know. A corrections officer working the visit room recognized me and took it upon himself to decide that someone in my position should NOT be visiting someone in Danner’s position. A letter that I had written was seized from Danner’s cell, mailed to the head of my Board of Directors and that brings me back to where this story began.
“Things will get better from here on out.” Those fateful words spoken by my boss on one of the most stressful evenings of my life. What neither he nor I knew at the time this was said to me is that he was right. Things DID get better from that point forward, but not in the way that he (or other small-minded, judgmental community members) expected. Not only did Danner and I persevere in the face of incredible odds and stress, I found my way professionally as well. Did I have to reinvent myself? You bet. In small towns, “scandals” such as this are not forgotten easily and nobody is interested in facts – there was an odd salacious aspect to this story that the gossip mongers interjected (and invented) which significantly affected my ability to get a job, despite having two Masters Degrees and a successful 30-year track record as the administrator of a large public school system. My family was subjected to sideways glances and whispers. To this day, 6 years after the fact, I can walk into a public establishment and it’s like the clock has been turned back for some community members. The judgmental looks, or the direct judgmental commentary directed at me, continue. But, I’ve grown from this experience in ways that I couldn’t have predicted.
Currently, I speak nationally on topics such as working with marginalized youth and providing effective support to children and adolescents with various learning disorders. I have had the privilege of speaking in all 50 states over the past three years and this is a path that I never would have investigated if not for the circumstances of my personal situation and resulting job loss. I have found my “niche,” so to speak, and although I thought I had reached the pinnacle of my career as a high-level administrator, I now realize it was only another stepping stone to success. A success that would not have been realized without Danner Darcleight in my life.
My relationship with Danner was not built on sex as most relationships are, if we are all honest. That was not possible due to our circumstances. So, we talked. A lot. About everything. And we still do. We support one another and have built an intimacy grounded in trust and compassion. He became, and continues to be, my very best friend as well as my husband. I have given up on trying to justify how I can love “someone like him.” Actually, how can I NOT love “someone like him?” Did he make a tragic, horrific decision 17 years ago? Yes. Has he turned his life around from being a heroin addicted, pleasure-seeking, selfish person who committed murder as a result of drug-fueled behavior? Yes. Has his family forgiven him and continued to keep him in their lives? Yes. Danner has become the person that he always was, before heroin seized his very soul. In writing, he has found solace, healing, and redemption. And he’s worthy of respect, love, and compassion just as anyone else is.
I am proud to call Danner Darcleight my husband, my best friend, my soul mate. Loving an inmate is not for the faint of heart. It is wrought with numerous challenges. Our commitment to one another is tested regularly. But, we always pass the test and we always will. I have been an “outmate” for almost 7 years. And I will continue to be for as long as the system deems necessary that he remain incarcerated. Even the stringent bureaucracy of the Department of Corrections can’t dampen our spirits. We keep on keeping on and I can’t think of anyone else I would travel through this world with.
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I’M HOPING THAT that you will not only read this blog and place your comments on it, but also feel free to contact Lily at email@example.com to ask questions, pose opinions, and get responses.