We interview Tanya Levin about her new book Crimwife: An Insider's Account of Love Behind Bars.What is Crimwife about?
Crimwife is essentially about the experiences of the partners of inmates and criminals. It is a mix of individuals’ stories, including my own, of falling in love with someone on the wrong side of the law. It also answers some of the old questions about these relationships: how they start, what life’s like when you’re in one, and of course, why do women stay with men like these?
Why did you decide to write Crimwife?
Visiting my partner in jail was a very different perspective from having worked in a prison as I had done. I suddenly became aware of other people who were impacted by incarceration and the justice system: the inmates’ families. Their partners sacrificed and devoted so much to sustain their men’s survival on the inside, yet they seemed almost invisible, ignored by the usual stories of jail life. Their side of the story needed to be told.
Crimwife is a memoir, and you’re very honest and sincere in telling your story of being a ‘crimwife’. You also write that it was crazy to pursue your relationship with Jimmy. Do you have any regrets, or would you do it all over again?
If it were 2004, I would absolutely do it all over again. We had a loving, caring, close relationship for a long time. It was impossible to deny the attraction then. In hindsight, my regrets are not about jail or my partner’s crimes. We moved in together way too early – as soon as he got out of jail – and that caused a lot of undue pressure. I think we’d have done a lot better if we’d lived separately. As well as that, I kept investing in a relationship that was growing more and more unhealthy, hoping it would change, and that’s never a good move for your own strength and sense of self.
Crimwife also tells the stories of other women who have had partners in prison. What sort of women did you speak to? Were they from all walks of life?
Women whose social or family lives have pre-existing criminal ties have more contact with the lawbreaking side of the community and are more likely to meet inmates in the course of everyday life. But there are plenty of women with no previous connections who are in relationships with men who are in jail. The surprising part was the unpredictability of the relationships’ success. Just as in other parts of the community, some stand the test of time, and others don’t, and it’s not always clear why.
You were working as a social worker in a men’s prison when you started a relationship with Jimmy. Your co-worker told you from the beginning that the relationship was doomed. Why do you think educated, professional, independent women like yourself pursue these relationships, despite being told they’re making a mistake?
For the same reason people pursue relationships at anytime, because of the attraction and the love they feel. Of course, everyone believes their situation is different from others’ cautionary tales. Love is irrational, often depending on hope and faith in the other person. Being warned doesn’t stop many people from running after love. It is my view, however, that professional, educated, independent women make these decisions deliberately, not accidentally. Often they have spent years doing the things society deems appropriate, without the satisfaction that was expected from high achievement. A prisoner appears genuine, with all the niceties of society stripped away, they’re not hiding behind a career or car to impress. What you see is what you get, and their flaws are out in the open, not waiting to be uncovered. It’s that kind of honesty that I think women find very attractive.
You write that jail time exists on the outside too. Can you describe what you mean by this?
Prison systems are rigid, harsh and dominate an inmate’s every life detail. This overlaps into the partner’s life as she must conform to the prison demands too. Although her partner is living in jail, she also waits for his release, for times to visit, call and write. His enforced routine becomes hers too, as both people are at the mercy of the jail’s decisions. She inevitably has to adapt her routine, her work, her children, her social life and even her living arrangements to accommodate the jail’s demands or the couple’s communications will be limited. So, organising her life around jail rules means partners end up doing jail of their own kind, too.
Crimwife is available in all good bookstores.