Atheist Life Hacks: How To Befriend a Killer

GM’s gonna get a little dark on you today. I’m feeling a little melancholy missing old friends and I thought I’d pay homage to one in particular.

Have you ever had one of those friendships that lasts for fucking ever and goes so euphorically high and so deeply low and even when it’s stable, it’s still something that can barely be contained in your mind, in your heart or in your dreams? The mindfuck kind, the sort that leaves ugly scars and foaming anger and firey love and lust and longing that makes heroin addiction look easy to kick.

Yeah. That’s M. for me. We don’t talk anymore, because he’s an asshole. A beautiful asshole who I fucking hate and fucking love at the same time. He builds me up to destroy me. Over… and over… and over again.

He meant more to me than breath. Than life. Even when I hated him. As I write this, he remains the relentless master of a very special part of my heart.

Sometime in this hurricane love, this twisted bullshit we called a “friendship”, he went away for a very long time. He’d gone to prison. For 9 years. For stealing a couple hundred dollars and possession. Mandatory minimums meant 9 years, no more, no less. Just like that, he destroyed me again.

I cope like a stalker. I fucking obsess. I immerse myself in learning about whatever it is that has hurt me. I breathe it, live it, watch it, talk it, dream it. It’s all there is. Then I go out and try to kick its ass.

When M. went to prison, prison became the only thing worth my time. I read every last book I could get my hands on. Memoirs, studies, papers, nonfiction, fiction, the history, fucking everything. I watched documentaries and movies and joined forums and read blogs and articles and watched shows. I locked myself up in a world of concrete cells, death rows and jody sportcoats. It was all that mattered.

You got nothing comingOne of the first books I read in the throes of my prison feast, was You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From A Prison Fish. It’s the true (or true-ish for those of you who don’t believe him) memoir of a 2.5 year bit spent in a Nevada State Prison for manslaughter. It was raw, traumatic and desperately hilarious. The book was written by Jimmy Lerner, who, after getting his book published, faced a long stream of lawsuits based on the Son of Sam law, which states that an inmate cannot make money off of his crime. He won. Eventually.

This book explained prison to me in my favorite language: dry, dark humour and sarcasm. I fell in love with the pages so hard, that I sought Jimmy out and emailed him. This is just something I have always done. I am a fan mail pro. Once, I wrote a letter to the band Nada Surf and their drummer, Elliot, responded telling me my fan mail read like a suicide note by Lester Bangs. But I digress. I wrote to Jimmy. I told him I loved his book.

Almost immediately I got a response. It was a fucking novel in itself, filled from the top to the bottom with scathing humour that had me in stitches, and deep, moving thoughts that had me in tears. I wrote back, and then he wrote back and then I wrote back and almost instantly it became a daily thing. I would get up in the morning, grab my coffee, open my computer and read his email, which was always waiting for me.

One of my favourite emails from Jimmy on Valentine’s Day went like this,

“Hey girl, it’s your favourite old Jew who’s full of shit. For St. Valentine’s, I just want to say, it’ll all be over one day. Have some Eliot:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

and he proceeded to paste in this poem.

Jimmy’s crime was manslaughter. He had been attacked by his drunk friend in Vegas and killed him while defending himself. That’s his story. Some people disagree. I didn’t really care. Based on the evidence, the judge sentenced him and he had served his time.

I ended up working for Jimmy, designing his web site, which he eventually took down for all the hate he got. We became quite close, even though he lived in Florida and I lived in Vancouver, and he was in his 60s and I was in my early 20s. We made each other laugh, and he helped me get through how sad I was that M. was in prison. He told me everything he could about it. He mentored me through some of my writing projects and gave me advice on dating, always being sure to ask if I was being treated like a princess. He was sweet and vulgar and hilarious and smart.

Jimmy Lerner

Jimmy Lerner

Still fully obsessed with everything to do with prison, I tuned in to the first episode of Fox’s Prison Break one night during my email friendship with Jimmy. Just a few moments into the episode, I was having intense deja vu. I’d heard all these lines and names before. I kept watching and it kept bothering me. I was unable to pinpoint why everything in this show was familiar even though this was the premier episode no one had seen before. Then it hit me. That’s Jimmy’s book!

I wrote to Jimmy immediately. I knew that Ridley Scott had purchased the film rights and then sold it to Fox, but if they were making it into a TV show, Jimmy would have told me. I told him his book was made into a show. He’d already had a few emails from his other readers, and had previously had no idea.

While the rest of Prison Break veered off into one of the most shit story lines of any show ever written, that first episode was damn near exactly Jimmy’s book. Fox eventually had to send Jimmy a bundle of dough, in exchange for keeping his mouth shut and dropping any disputes.

Jimmy confided in me that some of the things in his book may not be exactly how they happened in real life, but he explained that two things had happened while he wrote. 1. He couldn’t remember the details of a lot of things, and rather than leave an important part of the story out, he made some of those small details up. 2. When he wrote about his crime, he wrote it from the perspective of how it made him feel rather than true fact. He admitted to me he embellished, and I didn’t really care. The point of the book was not his crime. It was to shed light on what it’s like to do time in a maximum security prison in the US.

It was effective. It was the only prison memoir at the time that helped me understand where M. was, and what was happening to him. Through my work for Jimmy, I found out that a lot of family and friends of loved ones who were locked up, were just as helped by Jimmy’s book.

Since then, I have begun writing my own memoir and I can tell you, I now understand fully what he means. There are such integral bits to the the story that I just don’t fully recall. I will have to fill those gaps with something, because losing those moments will make the story not the same story. For instance, my memoir is about a very close friend of mine. She was hilariously vulgar all the time, and I completely stall on writing her dialogue because I just am nowhere near as funny nor do I have near as vulgar a vocab. I get it. I understand now, how difficult it is to bring something back that you didn’t catch on tape.

Since Jimmy’s death in ’08, I think of him often. I think about how much he talked and gushed about his daughter. I think about how much he made me laugh. I think about his darker moments and I find myself wondering what really happened in Vegas that night. I never let it change the fact, though, that Jimmy was a good friend to me, and a fantastic writer.

In death, he leaves a legacy that has been stolen by an awful show, and torn to bits by memoir nazis. It’s all but dropped off the literary landscape and that’s such an injustice. With 2.2 million people in prison in the US, there are a lot of families out there who suffer in pain that could be eased, however slightly, by reading Jimmy’s book. I wish I could change that. All I can do, is remember my friend, the way he used to make me laugh and smile.

Rest in peace, O.G. You’re missed.

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  • Linda Roessen

    I loved reading this! I’ve been a penpal to several prisoners for close to two decades now and it’s always a great thing for me to see that some people still can see the
    human side of prisoners, and even befriend them.

    Back in 2002 I lost one of my best friends because he was executed (thanks to the
    lovely state of Texas). He’d been my penpal and friend for about 5 years then.
    I missed him like crazy, yet apart from my husband, few people seemed to understand why I’d feel sad about a killer being executed.

    Because yes, he killed someone and injured someone else who died shortly after. I don’t condone or excuse any of that, just like I don’t with my current pals. Yet to
    me he was a big brother, a friend, someone I wrote insanely long letters to and
    could talk to about everything. He was right there with me (in letters) when I
    met my (now) husband, and when my husband and I found we couldn’t have children
    and started the long long way to adopting a child. It’s sad he never got to see
    the awesome kid we got.

    Shortly after hearing he’d gotten an execution date, me and hubby flew to Texas
    so I could see him in person. Those visits were so wonderful and emotional and
    totally worth the 13 hour flight from Holland. He was a great guy and I miss
    him still.

    And reading your story made me realize that I’m not the only one who feels that way. And that’s good to see!

    • Thanks for your story Linda, your husband sounds like an awesome man.

      Yeah, I truly believe compassion is the only way to make our society better. Hatred and anger and revenge never get us far.

      I am sorry for your loss.