Im­pris­oned by fool­ish love

Crimwife: An In­sider’s Ac­count of Love Be­hind Bars

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Martin Leonard Martin Leonard

OW can you do this as a mother? What is your son go­ing to think?’’ de­manded her friend in dis­be­lief. A drug and al­co­hol coun­sel­lor at a Sydney men’s prison, Tanya Levin had fallen for ‘‘ Jimmy’’, a con­victed armed rob­ber. Her po­si­tion un­ten­able, Levin re­signed, thus mak­ing her tran­si­tion from coun­sel­lor to ‘‘ crimwife’’, a tor­rid five-year af­fair that ended in fail­ure and dis­il­lu­sion.

This book is the ac­count of that af­fair, in­ter­spersed with the sto­ries of the anony­mous crimwives Levin met in that pe­riod. And there are many of them, for more than 90 per cent of Aus­tralia’s pris­on­ers are men. Al­though ul­tra-mas­culin­ity and the abil­ity to dom­i­nate are es­sen­tial if one is to sur­vive in jail, Levin’s mes­sage is that a de­voted woman can be the in­mate’s best chance of with­stand­ing the sys­tem’s bru­tal psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ments. Whether it is giv­ing money to pro­vide him with the piti­ful ba­sics, or driv­ing hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres ev­ery week­end to see him, or agree­ing to bring her man into her home so that he can get pa­role, the crimwife is at the beck and call of the sys­tem, a pris­oner by proxy if you like.

Con­trary to pop­u­lar cul­ture, Levin writes, most crimwives do not fall into the cat­e­gory of ‘‘ MWI’’, or met while in­car­cer­ated. As for those that do, the stereo­type is of a woman who is weak, gullible, des­per­ate or just plain stupid. The re­al­ity is more com­plex, she ar­gues, cit­ing re­search that in­mates also seek out other per­son­al­i­ties: the carer, risk-taker, prob­lem-solver, res­cuer and rule-breaker. Not sur­pris­ingly, there is a good chance the in­mate suitor is a psy­chopath. Not the knife-wield­ing An­thony Perkins type but a cold ma­nip­u­la­tor who is nonethe­less an adept charmer, yet de­void of con­science and em­pa­thy.

Crimwife is re­plete with tales of in­tel­li­gent women of im­pec­ca­ble char­ac­ter who did any­thing for their man, re­gard­less of the con­se­quences. Re­mem­ber the gun-tot­ing Lucy Dudko, who in 1999 forced a he­li­copter pi­lot to res­cue her lover John Kil­lick from Sydney’s Sil­ver­wa­ter jail? She was a li­brar­ian be­fore she turned hi­jacker. Then there is the story of the fe­male prison of­fi­cer who fell in love with an in­mate. On his re­lease they went to a ho­tel, By Tanya Levin Black Inc, 237pp, $29.99 where he later slashed her face. Hor­ri­fy­ing, but even more chill­ing is the pa­thetic ac­count of the same woman, frail, ban­daged, and back on prison grounds — but this time as visi­tor.

Levin’s ex­pe­ri­ence with Jimmy is mun­dane by com­par­i­son. Re­flect­ing on his influence causes her to think of ‘‘ an op­por­tunis­tic in­fec­tion, a virus search­ing for a home, in­vad­ing, leech­ing, de­stroy­ing, be­fore mov­ing on to search for a new host’’. Af­ter be­ing re­leased to live with her, he is caught in a stolen car. His pa­role breached, he is again jailed, some­thing she promised would re­sult in her aban­don­ing him. Twelve months later, she waits at the prison gates for her parolee.

Her anger at his re­gres­sion is tem­pered by her firm be­lief that, for some peo­ple, break­ing the law is not a pas­time, it is a way of life. In­deed, her cit­ing the phi­los­o­phy of the per­pet­ual pris­oner — the con­tempt for the so­cial con­tract, the be­lief that one should act as one wills, re­gard­less of con­se­quences — serves as a poignant re­minder that free­dom is by no means an ab­so­lute con­cept.

De­spite de­cry­ing the de­hu­man­is­ing cul­ture of the prison sys­tem, Levin at times fails to recog­nise her own con­tra­dic­tions. The prison of­fi­cer re­cruits she trained with, she writes, ‘‘ were not men and women with a pas­sion for so­cial jus­tice and keep­ing the community safe, but a mixed bag of ran­doms from around the state who were tired of work­ing at their lo­cal Shell sta­tion’’. She is dis­dain­ful of prison of­fi­cers who marry each other: ‘‘ I am grate­ful that I am not the prod­uct of such a mar­riage.’’ Her ex­pe­ri­ences cause her to re­flect that: ‘‘ In life and love, I am not suit­able for the prison en­vi­ron­ment.’’ In the first con­text, I have no doubt she is cor­rect. In the sec­ond, I am not con­vinced.

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