There's always that one burning question asked of author Diane Schoemperlen; How could she fall in love with a killer! The answer is simple: She fell in love with the man, not the crime.
In her latest book “This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications” Schoemperlen delves into the very serious issues of the Canadian prison system, emotional abuse in a relationship and the recovery of oneself after a 'bad' relationship ends. Heartfelt and written with love the book slams into these issues with honestly, breaking the taboos that society can place on such topics. The reader travels Schoemperlen's journey to what for most is never witnessed, prison life for those who didn't commit a crime-the loved ones on the other side of the bars. Her words are raw, emotional and real. At times the reader questions how she could put up with her lover's behaviour while cheering her on as she comes to terms with the relationship and its end.
Schoemperlen spoke about that relationship at a Toronto coffee house in January after her book had been shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize. It is clear that she loved Shane and still does love him even though the relationship was toxic. “Just because it was a bad relationship doesn't mean I didn't love him,” Schoemperlen said with a smile. She knows that this sentiment is not something that is well received by some members of the public, after all there was the emotional abuse and this man was a murderer, but it's a truth that abused women deal with everyday. Love is the main reason women remain for so long in bad relationships and denying that love took place is taking away from a person's being. It's part of our cultural system of shaming the victim of abuse.
The main focus of Schoemperlen's memoir is the love relationship she and convicted killer Shane experienced. It was not a case of love of first sight. They met while at a food bank that both were volunteering at. While Diane knew that Shane was an inmate fairly early she had no idea that he was a convicted killer. Like most of the public Schoemperlen was unaware that in Canada prisoners, even those convicted of murder, can be working unguarded as they progress through the system.
Shane came along at a time in her life where he fit, but that fit came after a long internal debate within as Schoemperlen discovered that she was indeed in love with this man.
While in his 60s Shane had spent most of his adult life in the prison system, a world that does not relate to a normal life. In a very real sense inmates are treated like children, their every action is regulated from start to finish each day. This can result in a stalled maturity for those whose adult formative years are spent in the system. Schoemperlen saw this first hand with the frequent temper tantrums and emotional abuse that peppered her and Shane's relationship. In the end the abusive nature of their relationship ended it but it was not easy or quick.
The recovery process is not easy for those leaving abusive relationships. For Schoemperlen. counselling helped her deal with the issues within the relationship and rebuild her personal strength, that she was able to overcome and emerge stronger understanding how her own past paid a part in the relationship.
Schoemperlen wants to be clear she is not ashamed that she is a survivor of emotional abuse. She wants it to be known “that if you have been in an abusive relationship- in any sense of the word- you have nothing to be ashamed of. Shame hurts you by hiding the pain and the strength you have as a survivor. I will not be ashamed that I loved this man.”
During Schoemperlen's relationship with Shane she realized how little the average Canadian understands about the nation's prison system. Much of our common knowledge is incorrect, coloured by images from the media on television and movies. Those filmed versions of the criminal world are mostly from the United States, a completely different entity than the Canadian one. Shane educated Schoemperlen early to the differences of murder in the Canadian system. “Life really does mean life in Canada,” Schoemperlen stated. While an inmate sentenced to life in Canada may not spend their entire life in maximum security they are forever an inmate with serious restrictions placed upon them. First degree murder (on offence that was planned out and deliberate) carries a mandatory life sentence with eligibility for parole over 25 years. There are no early releases in Canada and parole is not a sure thing. In fact, the first parole hearings are rarely granted in favour of the inmate. Each progression in the system, from the security level of the prison to being granted day passes or release comes after a review and hearing has taken place.
Schoemperlen saw many changes within the prison system during the years that she was with Shane.
When Diane and Shane started dating Paul Martin was Prime Minister. At the time Shane was housed in minimum security at Frontenac (now known as Collins Bay Institution) in Kingston, Ontario. It was the largest urban farm in Canada with dairy, chicken, cattle, fruit and vegetable production. The farm provided jobs for inmates with skills that provided an increased likelihood for future employment. Shane was able to volunteer at Vinnie's, a soup kitchen run by the St. Vincent DE Paul Society and attend Sunday services at a Catholic church in the city. Visiting Shane at Frontenac was a pleasant experience, with friendly guards who joked with the inmates and their loved ones.
Just months later Martin was replaced by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper put in place much stricter regulation for Canada's prison system. Those changes have greatly impacted inmates with some negatives that make for a more violent atmosphere within the system.
Prisons in the Harper era became overcrowded and harsher. Schoemperlen saw first hand the stricter rules for visitors. While her son had visited Shane at one prison prior to Harper she advised him not to go along with other visits after Shane was sent back to prison following his release during their time together.
Gone are farm camps. Although the farms reduced the cost of running prison institutions by providing food and provided marketable skills for inmates when they left the system the programming was erased.
University level courses, something that Shane had taken prior to Harper's time in office, are no longer offered. Schoemperlen said the reasoning behind this rule is because inmates are not allowed Internet access which is how off campus courses are currently offered. While inmates can finish high school they can't take part in courses that would help them to achieve future employment.
As we were finishing our talk Diane shared that Shane has shared with her about his feelings of her book. “He loved the book,” Diane said with a bright smile, sharing that he had told her during a short phone conservation that he saw the love and the pain within her words.
“This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and Other Complications” is an important book on many levels, from understanding the impact of emotional abuse in a relationship to the realities of prison life in Canada. Well written with a raw truth “This Is Not My Life” deserves a place in your home library.