When Kerry Keyes and I began the process of writing her life story seven years ago we never questioned why we were doing it. Kerry had recently witnessed a man physically bullying his wife at the local grocery story. The woman kept her head down, her mouth shut. She wore dark sunglasses and darker bruises. Her pain - physical and emotional - radiated through Kerry's own body. It was a pain she had escaped, but not forgotten. A pain she hoped women no longer experienced. But in that moment, despite all the advancements in domestic violence support networks and legislation, Kerry knew her story wasn't unique.
Throughout the vulnerable process of reopening and recording how that story came to unfold, Kerry often expressed apprehension. Her fears didn't revolve around what we were doing. She was resolute in that endeavor. No, what terrified her was how the choices she had made would be received by readers. Would people judge her? Would they think less of her? After all, some of the things she had done were not only morally questionable, they were downright illegal. Kerry went to prison twice for fraud in the 70s, but every bad check was written under the thumb of her abusive partner. Every bad check was one less black eye.
When presented so clearly, it is impossible not to sympathize with her position. I couldn't imagine a situation in which a reader would come away from Kerry's story blaming her, blaming the victim. Sadly, such perspective isn't always available. Statistics from The Sentencing Project suggest that upwards of 90% of female inmates are victims of abuse. The longer the sentence, the greater the chance of abuse playing a role, until life without parole sentences approach a perfect correlation.
In one way or another, abuse often becomes a life sentence. But it doesn't have to.