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 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.
Part Three included my (unfavorable) view of Anne’s boyfriend and letters from him and two of her girlfriends that illuminated some aspects of their lives.
One of the great advantages of working as a journalist or an organization devoted to journalism, is the opportunity it affords you to visit and see things – people and places – that you might not otherwise have reason to experience. I was very fortunate to have worked for an organization that for most of my working career afforded me those opportunities as I traveled over much of America and the rest of the world.
Driving past Dannemora in 1980 to find YW, Anne’s best friend, the poverty so evident along the dirt roads, the desperation (quiet or not) of Anne, her parents, and her friends, I saw a far different picture of rural America than I was used to imaging or thinking about. This was the same countryside, the same Adirondack Park, that looks so beautiful and bucolic, the summer playground for tourists like my middle-class family, the place that we spent summers when I was a child. Who thought of these other lives, the lives of so many who actually lived there.
We NYC dwellers still tend to think of poverty in terms of black and Hispanics, not recognizing the extent of poverty among the working poor in places like Clinton County and the rest of the northern tier of NY, which is almost entirely white, not to mention in vast stretches of the rest of the country. I’m not sure how residents of other towns like Hudson imagine poverty and the lives of the working poor. It wouldn’t surprise me if reflexively we are inclined to think of people of color first no matter if the numbers challenge that notion.
Regardless of color, I discovered rural America was not all it was cracked up to be. All was not family farms and cows and corn and loving homes where all the virtue of America resides. The underbelly of rural America can be as ugly, cruel and desperate as the underbelly of America’s large cities. The difference is that we romanticize the rural while over-dramatizing the ugliness of the urban.
As for Anne, who lived in this world, I returned to NY with a bag full of letters and notes and documents, wondering what to do with her story of failure and tragedy. It truly was a tragedy because the end was inevitable, at least in hindsight. It was hard to comprehend the totality of the failure. Simply put, it was the failure of every single institution that we have constructed in America to prevent Anne’s fate. It was a failure of the family, the social service agencies and its workers, the psychiatric profession, mental hospitals, therapeutic communities, the foster family system and the courts. And if Steve truly loved Anne, then it was a failure of the curative and transformative power of love. Ultimately, it was Anne’s failure too. Even if she had some insight into her own condition (and I believe she did), for every step she took forward, she took two back. And finally, she thought there were no more steps to take.
It occurred to me then, as it does now, that the self-styled “prisoner of love” really was a prisoner. It seemed to me that her frustration, rage, pain and loneliness was directed both outward and inward. No matter how much she hated her life, hated all the institutions that did or didn’t try to help her, she hated herself even more for being unable to break out of it the things that trapped her, to break out of herself. She really was trapped in her prison.
Is it possible that suicide was the only rational solution to a problem – herself – that neither she nor anyone else could help her with? What a terrible, ghastly, awful thought.
I don’t know what Anne’s judge thought he would accomplish by putting Anne in jail. Punishment? Rehabilitation? Intervention? Redemption? What? Jail, certainly, could serve no purpose that I could see. In December 1979, none of these things seem to matter, if they ever had. It was way too late for Anne. Jail was just the last in the long series of institutional and societal failures, the failures of human beings.
Criminal justice reform is always needed and always justified but it isn’t often a cure for anything. It certainly wasn’t for Anne, certainly not for the crime of driving a car without a license, one of her four traffic citations, for the crime of not being able to pay a $170 fine, for the crime of being poor. For far too many, jail for such crimes is just another stop on the road to eventual failure, maybe not for everyone but for most.
An undated note from Anne:
“My life is nothing. I keep screaming for help but no one hears me. I’m a prisoner of the family court. I tried for two years but I give up. This is the best peace and freedom I know.
“God, take my soul.
“Let me be peaceful.
“With all my hate and love, Anne, the prisoner of life.”
I promised to answer the question YW asked me,
“why won’t everyone leave Anne alone?”
Eventually, I decided to put the story of Anne’s life away. The story was too depressing, the failures so universal that I felt I couldn’t immerse myself in it for very long without it negatively affecting my life. So, I put Anne away, the scraps and papers of her life in a file in my basement and for 30 years I did as YW asked. I left Anne alone.
But Anne won’t leave me alone.