Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The (GA)
Art Section

Published: August 22, 2004

BOOKS: An ex-con's daily struggle and the long arm of the law

By TERESA K. WEAVER

Almost by definition, a book of immersion journalism has to be fairly bleak. The best are the result of months or years spent trailing someone in trouble, someone dangerous or someone in danger of falling through society's cracks altogether.

The ending doesn't have to be happy, necessarily, but the story has to be a lot bigger than one life. Serious readers may not always need redemption, but they sure need a reason to care.

Journalists know that writing about any heavy, serious topic -- imprisonment, drug abuse, poverty -- requires a human face, a personal prism through which to tell what an overwhelming "issue" really means to people's lives. Finding the right face to fill that role is crucial.

Slipping easily into the thriving genre of "Random Family" and "There Are No Children Here," Jennifer Gonnerman's "Life on the Outside" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24) tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, a strong-willed, brutally honest mother of four who spent 16 years in prison as a first-time drug offender. Gonnerman devoted three years to following Bartlett's every step and misstep, beginning the day she was released from prison in 2000. The result is an extraordinarily detailed and nuanced account of a rough life.

"The whole reason Elaine wanted to do the book in the first place was to make those 16 years count for something," says Gonnerman, 33. "This was her attempt to get some of that time back."

Since the book was published early this year, Gonnerman and Bartlett have toured the country, speaking to women's groups, prisoners, former prisoners, social activists and such. This summer, the tour brought them to metro Atlanta, to the 2004 Roundtable for Women in Prison, a national conference.

The story they shared there, like the story shared in the book, is not about imprisonment as much as it is about life after imprisonment -- about the complexities of re-entering an unforgiving society and a very damaged and angry family.

Gonnerman first met Bartlett in 1998 while working on a story for the Village Voice marking the 25th anniversary of New York state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Those laws, championed in 1973 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, created a system of mandatory minimum sentences so that anyone convicted of possessing at least 4 ounces or selling at least 2 ounces of heroin or cocaine would receive a sentence of at least 15 years to life. It didn't matter, under those guidelines, whether the offender was a drug kingpin or a first-time mule.

Gonnerman wanted to write about the true cost of those laws -- not just the economic impact, but the human toll.

Bartlett was 26 when she entered prison and 42 when she got out. Her four children were 1, 3, 6 and 10 when she went in; by the time she got out, they were virtually unrecognizable and destined for hard lives of their own.

"All those years she'd been away," Gonnerman writes, "[Elaine] had never even considered the possibility that she might be living in better conditions in prison than her children were in the free world."

During Bartlett's first week of freedom, "whenever anyone asked her how she felt, she said, 'I left one prison to come home to another.' "

Gonnerman wears her biases openly: She believes the mandatory sentencing laws are costly, unfair and utterly ineffective. To her credit, she paints a complete, complicated portrait of Elaine Bartlett, as a woman of often questionable judgment, tenuous values and great temper. It's obvious, though, that the two women harbor great respect for each other.

The author doesn't excuse Bartlett for the bad decisions she makes, but she does hold society at least partly accountable for the obstacles inherent in reclaiming a life and rebuilding a family.

The larger message of the book -- the admittedly lofty notion of a shared humanity -- supersedes the war on drugs, sentencing reform or even politics.

"I think people who have never been to prison will be able to relate to some of her struggles," Gonnerman says. "Her efforts to be a good mother, to find a job and a place to live, her determination to stop herself from becoming bitter. . . .

"I think in a lot of ways she's not so different from everybody else. . . ."

tweaver@ajc.com