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Claverack, New York
Fiction/Memoir | Local culture | Soft news
18 July 2019 05:29PM

I Am
I am: a prisoner of love
I am: a prisoner of life
I am: a prisoner of the world
I am: a prisoner of sacrifice
I am: a prisoner of
Anne Marie Venne, 1963-1979

Part One of this series concerned the prevalence of criminal justice reform movements in this country along with the idea of jailing people for, in effect, the crime of being poor. It begins telling the story of Anne Marie Venne, a 16-year-old girl who committed suicide in the Albany county jail on December 21st, 1979, six days before she was due to be released.

Part Two related some of the details of Anne’s life. She was in jail because she didn’t have the money to pay a $170 fine and no one else, including her parents, boyfriend and girlfriends, among others, could or would help her.

Steve Lawrence, Anne’s boyfriend since 1977, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) help her any more than he could help himself. We had a long telephone conversation after my trip to Plattsburgh, where I had gone to find out more about Anne and her life. His was a litany of self-justifications and self-pity, complaints about how everything was someone else’s fault. He was out of work for most of his semi-adult years and wasn’t interested in finding a job. He did have muscular dystrophy and his legs were withering away. He mostly lived on disability payments, beer and pot and the sympathy of others. I disliked him intensely, though that might have been because I so wanted someone to have been able to help Anne.

There is a letter from Steve to Anne that is undated, though I think it was written at the time she was in the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Hospital in Ogdensburg, NY where she was sent not long after they met. This also follows a (short?) period when he was sitting in a jail cell on December 14th, 1977 (perhaps this is the occasion that Anne’s mother had officially accused him of endangering the welfare of a minor”). The court order establishing Anne’s PINS state (person in need of supervision), by the way, was dated December 5th.

“I don’t know who is telling you stories. I haven’t looked a girl since you’ve been gone. What the hell are you trying to do to me. I never tried to get anything from you except a little love in return for my love for you.
“The reason I haven’t been writing is my conditional discharge wasn’t over and Judy de Long [Steve’s probation officer] sent me a letter that said I was breaking it because of you, but that’s over.
“I tried to help you a lot you can’t say I didn’t. Now I will soon need your help. My legs are going slow but sure.
“Please write me back or I’ll end up like you want me to end up. Dead. And just because of what we did in Millerton, believe me I wanted that because I love you, not because it feels good or not to take advantage of you.
“If I never see you again, you won’t like it too much if I do go out and find you.”

As I said, it’s not easy to see his virtues.

The letters from her girlfriends are filled with the real and/or imagined melodrama of their teenage lives.

YW (Anne’s best friend), October, 1978:

“Do you really think you are pregnant? Is Steve the father? What did you stab that guy for? Not going with Paul any more. Do you want me to ask Steve? I hate him. Don’t marry him (nobody will go to the wedding).”

Excerpts from a November 16th, 1978 letter from YW:

“I hate Lori & Paula as does Paul. She’s a slut. Going to Boston and got shot. Paul going to Hawaii….
“Where are you? …
“Doing badly in English (42), biology (65), social studies (79(, math (83), typing (80). Failed English last year and social studies and math. Pot and Beer. Shot a partridge….
“Tell me if you’re pregnant. Thought I was last month. Paula thinks she is (no period for 3 months). Could be John’s or Rick’s. Ralph had ounce of pot….
“Remember when I pierced your ears?”

DS to Anne. September 30th, 1978:

“How’d you get back in that hole. [St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, I think] I’m glad to hear [Steve] proposed….
“I’ve been here almost 9 months [St. Ann Institute in Albany “a private, not-for-profit organization dedicated to serving the critical behavioral and mental health needs of children and families”] and it’s pretty rough. My time is up in July….
“Let’s get to the lighter side of things like Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. As for sex – I only get that when I go home for visits. Drugs – not very frequent here – but whenever I can – Rock and Roll is always around so one out of three ain’t bad.”

Since YW was Anne’s best friend, I decided to try and find her before returning to NYC and drove west from Plattsburgh, passing beneath the forbidding stone walls of the Clinton Correctional Facility built in 1845, or Dannemora, as it’s commonly called, a maximum security prison, and the dirt road that passed in front of the trailer in which YW and her parents lived. No one was home and I left a note for her in her mailbox. She wrote back, saying that she wouldn’t talk to me and asked,

“why won’t everyone leave Anne alone?”

Forgetting about the fact that she probably didn’t want to talk about her own life of, in DS’s words, sex, drugs and rock and roll, at least as much as she didn’t want to talk about Anne, I’ll try to answer YW’s question in the next column.

(to be continued)

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