About the Author

Susan Musgrave

Susan Musgrave has been labelled everything from eco-feminist to anti-feminist, from stand-up comedian to poet of doom and gloom, from social and political commentator to wild sea-witch of Canada's northwest coast. Her career as a social misfit began when she was kicked out of kindergarten class for laughing, and sent to the library to contemplate her heinous crime while seated on the “Thinking Chair”. She understood, then, that books and thinking must be considered dangerous, and they became her favourite forms of escape. Not long afterwards she dropped out of kindergarten for good. In Grade 8 she won her first poetry competition, with a poem about Jackie Kennedy visiting her husband's grave by moonlight in rhyming couplets. Her prize was a copy of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. At 14, Susan Musgrave dropped out of high school and ran away from home to gain life experience. She got as far as the railway tracks in Ladysmith, on Vancouver Island, where she wrote poetry about cigarettes drowning in cold cups of coffee, and on the eternal shortness of existence. Next we have the missing years (months, actually). Committed to the local psychiatric ward, assigned to Room 0, she met most of the University of Victoria's English Department. While she was plotting her eventual escape from the mental hospital, the poet Robin Skelton came to visit her. “You're not mad,” he said, after reading her poetry, “you're a poet.” She and an older professor escaped together, and spent the next years living in Berkeley, California. Her first book of poetry was published when she was 19. Of Songs of the Sea Witch, her grandfather said, “Even Shakespeare had to write a lot of rubbish to begin with.” In 1969 she received a short term Canada Council Grant of $1500 and spent the next two years living on the remote west coast of Ireland. In 1972 she returned to Canada, to the Queen Charlotte Islands, and in 1975 married a criminal lawyer, Jeffrey Green, at St. Albans Cathedral in England. The marriage lasted four years. During the trial of five Americans and 23 Colombians accused of attempting to smuggle 30 tonnes of marijuana into Canada (her husband was one of five defence lawyers) she fell in love (from across the courtroom) with one of the accused smugglers, Paul Oscar Nelson. When he was acquitted she left with him for Mexico. They lived for two years in Colombia and Panama, until the birth of their daughter, Charlotte, in 1982. While Susan was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Waterloo, 1983-85, Paul Nelson was sentenced to four years in prison in California on a previous smuggling charge. While in prison he gave his life to the Lord, and Susan and Paul were divorced shortly afterwards. Around the same time, 1983, Susan received a manuscript from a convicted bank-robber, Stephen Reid, serving a twenty-year sentence at Millhaven Penitentiary, in Ontario. She read the manuscript, fell in love with the protagonist, and married the author on October 12, 1986, while he was still in prison. His novel, Jackrabbit Parole was released the same year. On June 1, 1987, Stephen Reid was granted full parole, and the couple moved into a seaside cottage on Vancouver Island, with a 190 foot Douglas fir tree growing through the middle of it. In 1989 their daughter Sophie was born; in 1997 Stephen burned his warrant and Susan burned her mortgage papers in a party attended by a diverse group of family, friends and writers including a Supreme Court judge and two paroled members of the Squamish Five. During their thirteen year marriage Stephen battled heroin and cocaine addiction. In 1997, the couple began building a house on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and their lives were the subject of a CBC Life and Times documentary, The Poet and the Bandit, which aired in January 1999. On June 9, 1999, after a two year clean-and-dry period that had ended roughly around the time the documentary aired, Stephen was arrested for bank robbery in Victoria, following a shootout and car chase through Beacon Hill Park. He was sentenced to eighteen years in prison on December 22, 1999. Musgrave has published over 21 fiction, poetry, children's, and non-fiction books.

Books by this Author
A Taste of Haida Gwaii

A Taste of Haida Gwaii

Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World
edition:Paperback
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On Haida Gwaii you don't see a lot of "glistening stemware" (you'll see glistening silverware at least at Copper Beech House where it is polished, if not daily, then annually by the tireless Jules) and the only limousine I know of is the one Smokin' Joe has parked in his front yard as a rusted-out garden ornament, but we can assume that all the wild foods we pick, harvest, or catch, though not organically certified, are beyond organic: eating local is the new organic; foraging is the new eating local. Wild foods grow wildly, wherever they choose to put down roots, not where anyone with a wad of pesky certified organic produce stickers says they are allowed to grow. Wild foods defy domestication and won't be tamed.

"There are captivating and fun photos throughout, and stories both personal and universal. There is much to learn from the book, and not just about cooking. I really appreciated having some of Susan's Haida neighbours and friends introduced in photos and stories, and there are many other cultural treasures, such as thirty-four words for salmon in the Haida Language, not to mention all the ways of smoking and preparing salmon."
BC Studies

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Cargo of Orchids
Excerpt

Editor’s Note
Though this story is true, some names have been changed. Otherwise there have been few alterations.

The writer intended both the Spanish and her translations into English to be included in the text, but in most cases the Spanish has been dropped for the sake of expediency. A few words and phrases and colloquialisms have been retained for flavour, and she would like to thank Paul Oscar Nelson for his input. Also Gustavo Gomez, for his fine-tuning. It is the writer’s wish that her name appear nowhere in the book.

Part One / Valentine’s Day in Jail
Stop and imagine for an instant a world where someone is grateful for something.
–Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

Chapter One
Death Clinic, Heaven Valley State Facility for Women

If you are a new inmate only recently sentenced by the courts, this will probably be an entirely new experience for you. –Inmate Information Handbook

When you find yourself listening to their keys and owning none, you will come close to understanding the white terror of the soul that comes with being banished from all commerce with mankind. –Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides

When a reporter asked Rainy to compare being given the death sentence to being hit by a train, she said, “The train was quicker, the train was softer.”

I’ve lived next door to Rainy for ten years, on the Condemned Row. They call it the Death Clinic–as if it’s a place you go to get treatment for a terminal disease. You can’t cure death, but while you wait for it, they make life impossible.

In many cases death-row inmates are not allowed to write anything longer than a one-page letter, double-spaced. That they permit me to write this story is not a right, they remind me every chance they get, it’s a privilege. If I write gossip, to spread rumours that might end up embarrassing the staff, this privilege will be revoked. So I do as I am told, and “confine all writings to inside the lines.” If you ignore the lines, you are considered “out of bounds without authorization and subject to disciplinary action.”

When I write the word lines, I think of cocaine. My care and treatment counsellor, Mrs. Dykstra, would say the word lines is a trigger, a connection to my former “drug-seeking ways.” Not to mention connection.

La Reina de la Cocaína is what they called me in the papers after my arrest: the Cocaine Queen. They gave me other names, too. La Madre Sin Corazón. The Mother without a Heart. When I told one reporter I wished I’d been called Oriana Fallachi, a name that sounds like you’re having sex without doing it, he said he could understand why a woman like me would want to change her identity.

Rainy says I shouldn’t take it personally, what they say about me in the press. They always end up bad-mouthing mothers who kill their kids.

***

Frenchy, my only other neighbour at the moment, is suing the railway. When the train passes the prison at 2:16 every afternoon, it whistles and wakes her up.

Rainy says, what does she expect? She sleeps all day.

Every day is a gift, I say. Who can blame her for not wanting to get out of bed?

***

Each Christmas Eve we are issued a new calendar so we can start X-ing off the days – until next Christmas or our date certain, whichever comes first. But aside from the barbed-wire sculpture meant to symbolize a Christmas tree in one corner of the chow hall, and the matron who has a “negativity scene”–what Rainy calls it–on her desk, Christmas is like any other day on the Condemned Row. The Salvation Army used to donate a poinsettia for our common room, until one year a girl made a salad out of the leaves.

This morning in the shower, Rainy started singing, “Deck the halls with marijuana, fa-la-la-la-la-la la la la.” She would have gone on, but Frenchy, who doesn’t have the Christmas spirit, told her to shut up. The rule here is that if someone asks you to shut up, you shut up. Because they’re not asking for a debate, and they’re not asking again.

Rainy says she and Frenchy are the two best friends I could “hope to never have.” She also insists that if anyone reads this book, they will want to know what my best friends look like; she doesn’t understand when I tell her I don’t care about appearances. Rainy’s expressions, actions and thoughts count for more in this story than the fact that she is so thin her elbows and knees look like they’re going to slice through her clothing, or that her eyes are empty because she’s cried all the colour away, or that she has no chest at all and a mouth that turns down from the way things have gone.

Despite the freight of anger she carries, Rainy seems so frail it is hard to imagine her giving birth to anything heavier than tears. Rainy gave birth to twins, and six months later left them on the railway tracks. She claims it prejudiced the jury. If she’d smothered them or driven them off a pier, it would have been more socially acceptable. She might have been able to cut a deal, had her sentence commuted to life. She could have gone on “Oprah” and become a celebrity, maybe even a role model for women who are child-free by choice.

The train was quicker, the train was softer. But abandoning your kids on the tracks wasn’t in fashion. She wishes now she’d gone out drinking for the evening instead, but she didn’t have enough money to hire a babysitter and pay for the beer.

I can hear Rainy singing, under her breath as she leaves the shower room, “’Tis the season to be jolly.” In prison, time does not progress, it goes round and round in a spiral of endless pain. I want to say, Rainy, there are no seasons in prison–only time.

***

Frenchy has a little peacock-like crest of hair shooting from the white bandanna she says she wears “to keep my brains wrapped up in.” There’s a male heaviness about her face: her broad nose, brown eyes, a mouth made for smiling and for grief. Her most distinguishing feature, though, is the white, heart-shaped mark, shining like a beauty spot in reverse, on her cheek. Frenchy calls it her “ugly spot.”

Frenchy’s here because she killed her sixteen-year-old son. “The two of us was just fooling around, you know. Robbing a bank. I’ve made a few mistakes in life I probably shouldn’t have made. And we was doing more drinking than we probably should have, considering we was both on probation. And I was high at the time. So I think I might have overpanicked when those alarms went off, but I don’t recall shooting anyone on purpose.

“We got away from the bank, even though he couldn’t run fast and had to drop most of the money and got blood all over the rest. I was pretty hot about that. I left him by the river, thinking I could go back and find a doctor when things cooled off. The whole town was looking for us, so I stayed at Laverne’s getting high for a week. When Laverne and me went back for him, some animals had eaten on him and there was bugs everywhere, and Laverne shot his teeth out. She told me she done it so that his dental records couldn’t be used against me. That’s what I loved best about Laverne–you could count on her to take care of the details.

“The shooting his mouth part, that made it look bad, but I kept my own mouth shut and never gave up Laverne to the cops, even though I could have got a deal if I did.” Frenchy’s got a few good qualities like that–loyalty. And hindsight. She sees now she made some bad choices, but Frenchy didn’t have a lot of positive influences when she was growing up. She still likes to shock people by telling them, “I was so young when I started sucking cocks, I had to be burped afterwards.”

Her father was “good part Cajun, mostly bad part black”; her mother, who gave birth to her in a mental institution, Crow–you can see it in Frenchy’s bones. She’s got one finger missing–she gave the finger to her father when he boxed her one time; sliced it off right in front of him. Frenchy has no regrets. Nine fingers, she says, gets you a discount at the manicurist’s.

After Laverne shot her boy’s teeth out, Frenchy told me they went on a road trip, stealing a Grand Prix, refuelling with hot credit cards. Laverne made one more mistake, Frenchy said, when she paid for a Diet Coke with a gold American Express card at a Holiday Inn. Then when the card came up invalid, she pretended she didn’t speak English and left Frenchy holding the bag. When she went to trial, Frenchy asked Laverne for a character reference, “because Laverne, whatever else she might screw up, wouldn’t screw up my character.”

****

I found one book in the library that says there are five ways to die, all of them painful. Even when you die in your sleep, it hurts. Those five painful ways don’t include the choices I’ve been presented with under the state’s new pro-choice with a twist policy. Pro-choice means the freedom to choose which form of capital punishment is best suited to your personality–lethal injection, gas chamber, electric chair, hanging or the firing-squad. If you can’t make up your own mind, they choose for you. “Dead if you do, dead if you don’t,” says Rainy.

Unlike those whom society invests with authority, most people who live on the Row have learned that killing people is wrong. When I write that the death penalty is an unambiguous disgrace to civilized humanity, I suppose there are people who say that’s because I have an axe to grind. I do, and it’s blunt from being ground down over the ten years I’ve lived waiting to die in prison.

Another book I read says the key to understanding capital punishment is to be found in its ritual element. Many cultures have made ritual sacrifices–the Aztecs, for instance, spread their victim on a stone altar, cut open his chest with an obsidian blade, then ripped his heart out. State-sanctioned murder should be, in theory, no more curious than that.

Rainy has come with me to the library to see what I do with myself all day. When I describe how poor Aztec children were sold to priests by their parents, who couldn’t afford to keep them, she wants to know if those children got their hearts torn out, too. Not unless the priests wanted it to rain, I say; they believed the rain god favoured little children’s tears. Rainy says those kids were lucky if getting sacrificed was the worst thing that ever happened to them in their lives.

Rainy never learned to read or write; she thinks a sentence is something you have to serve. She’s never been in a library before, and didn’t know God had created that many books. The one book she recognizes is the Bible. I tell her parts of it were written in prison, and that capital punishment, like feeling guilty about having sex, has all its roots in religion.

Rainy thinks about this, then says she hasn’t had sex for so long she is afraid her parts have healed shut, like a pierced ear you don’t wear a post in.

I sign out The Rituals of Human Sacrifice to save Frenchy the trouble of stealing it for me. Frenchy prides herself on her ability to steal, but where books are concerned, I’ve had to tone her down.

When we were back in the general population, I caught her tearing the last page out of a mystery I’d been on the waiting list to read. She claimed to have “edited” hundreds of books this way; if she was going to die, she said, she wanted to make sure those left behind would remember her. I said I’d pay her a bale of tobacco for every book she could steal for me that came with an ending. Before long I had to put a limit on the number. It was easier for Frenchy to pinch books than it was for me to find places to hide them, and soon I was paying her to steal books back to the library.

***

When I told my mother I was writing a book, she begged me to write it under a pseudonym. I’ve never heard of a person writing her memoirs under an alias; if anyone reading this wonders why I’ve left my name out of this story, one reason is to make my mother proud of me. When I asked her not to visit me here, I think she was relieved. She toured a dungeon once, in the Azores, and found it “stuffy.”

I write to her once a week, but I’m careful about what I say. She’d only worry if she knew I lay awake at night thinking up ways to short-circuit the electric chair, or calculating how long I’d be able to hold my breath in the gas chamber.

In her most recent letter, she told me she was going to the Caribbean, “to some island where they speak English, I hope.” She will be wearing the watch passed down from her great-great-grandmother, with its diamonds and sapphires “worth more than my house.” She wears it because she’s afraid she’ll lose it otherwise. There’s logic.

If anything happens to her, and she doesn’t make it back in one piece, she says, I should be sure to file a claim. I don’t remind her where I live, or that I won’t be able to spend her insurance money where I’m going, but I do warn her that if she flaunts the watch, some cracked-out desperado might hack off her whole arm with a rusty machete. That might not be such a bad thing. A lost arm would provide her with a permanent conversation piece now that my father is gone, or, at the very least, give her something new to talk about besides the unreliable lamp in her life.

Last night I dreamed I buried my face in my father’s nut-brown jacket, reaching for the smell of him in the old corduroy. I could smell his pipe tobacco, the kind I used to catch a whiff of on the street, like sugared leather dipped in wildflower honey mixed with dust. My mother still keeps his jacket over the back of his chair, as if she expects him to walk in from the garden with a handful of the Chinese tea roses he bred. In my dream, the roses smelled like tea leaves when you bruise them.

***

When I first came to the Row, they made me sign forms saying that in the event of death or injury sustained during my incarceration, I would not hold the institution responsible. I can’t say they haven’t been taking care of me.

When they escort me to the chow hall, they attach a trip chain to my leg shackles so the guard behind me, holding the chain, can pull my feet out from under me if I make a break for it and try to vault the seventeen-foot-high fence of electrified wire–assuming I make it through all six electronically controlled doors and across six hundred feet of open yard first. My wrists are handcuffed too, although they undo the cuffs to let me eat. Then they just watch me extra hard.

I have been classified as an escape risk, among other things. It doesn’t take them long to classify you. They read your file, look you over, ask your age, race and religion, and then write down whatever Representation of Female Evil they figure you most closely represent.

a) Cold Calculators: Women who ruthlessly kill their husband(s) or loved one(s) for financial gain.

b) Black Widows: Serial murderers of husbands, male lovers and next of kin. Some killings seemingly have no motive. Most common modus operandi is poisoning.

c) Depraved Partners: Highly charged, (hetero)- sexual, violence-loving young women who link up with an evil, murderous male partner to commit serial murders, often involving the kidnapping and torture of young white women.

d) Explosive Avengers: Manlike or lesbian women. Premeditation is far from clear.

e) Robber Predators: Women who murder while committing or covering up financial-gain felonies.

My classification officer got excited when I asked her to read again the definition of an Explosive Avenger. When she reread it, watching my face this time, I asked for clarification on “Premeditation is far from clear.” She said “premeditation” meant you had planned your crime in advance; it wasn’t just something you did because you lost control of your reason in a moment of passion. I said I understood what the word meant, but I didn’t understand the meaning of “Premeditation is far from clear.” Did that mean it was unclear whether the crime was premeditated, or that the premeditation itself was not very well thought out? My CO looked at the words, frowned, then admitted it must be a mistake, that the line ought to read “Motivation is far from clear.”

I went back to my house, feeling I had made one small step for Female Evil. However, nothing changed. My CO wrote that I probably had a “lesbian-type affiliation” with Consuelo de Corazón, which is why I maintained the illusion I was being held hostage. In her opinion, I had clearly murdered my child, “though premeditation is far from clear.”

Rainy says that if it is any consolation, she too has been classified as an Explosive Avenger/Cold Calculator, even though she never made one dime from killing her twins.

Everyone here gets classified as a Something-American.

Rainy. Age: 32; Mexican-American; Explosive Avenger/ Cold Calculator.

Frenchy. Age: 35; African-American; Robber-Predator.

Yours Truly. Age: 47; Canadian-American; Explosive Avenger/Cold Calculator.

I appealed my classification, saying I did not have U.S. citizenship, but the classification officers who reviewed my case could not conceive of a nationality that wasn’t at least half American. “Everybody’s got to have some good in them,” they said.

Once you have been classified, that’s what you have become. And you go to your grave here with your classification papers stuffed in your hand like a diploma.

***

My husband (more about him later) hired a lawyer to represent me–Ferdinand Pile, Jr.–the self-acclaimed “Cadillac of lawyers.” As soon as I heard his name, I figured Vernal must have a million-dollar insurance policy on my life.

Even though I don’t think Pile, Jr.–who promised he’d get me out of prison if it took him the rest of his life–had ever defended a murder case, I’m not blaming him for the fact I got the death sentence. I want it to go on record that I take full responsibility for what I did. That’s one reason I’m writing this book.

It’s so easy to get sidetracked in here. To lose my train. Alone in my house I open The Rituals of Human Sacrifice, and turn to a section of photographs. A child’s shoe in the grass–this one makes me saddest. I think how much of a story that shoe, with the mindless persistence of objects, has to tell. I imagine slipping my baby’s narrow foot into it, tickling his sole when he curls up his toes, the way he always did.

I fed my child; I did what I could. But even in my dreams he is always hungry, and no matter how much I feed him, it’s never enough. He sucks his thumb and pulls out his eyelashes with his fingers. Sometimes he dips the eyelashes into honey, or something else sweet, like treacle or molasses, then plays with them between his teeth. I honestly think he swallows them, though by that point the dream is usually over.

I can only guess what he might have become. Sorrow is nourishment forever.

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Given

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Hag Head

by Susan Musgrave
illustrated by Carol Evans
edition:Hardcover
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Kiss, Tickle, Cuddle, Hug

Kiss, Tickle, Cuddle, Hug

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Love You More

Love You More

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also available: Hardcover
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More Blueberries!

More Blueberries!

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback Hardcover
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Blueberry cheeks, blueberry chin
Blueberry teeth, blueberry grin

Blueberry fingers, blueberry nose
Blueberry lips, blueberry toes

Yummy! Tasty!
More blueberries!

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Origami Dove
Excerpt

MAGNOLIA
Another Valentine’s Day behind bars
and I bring you light from the stars
that you might find your way back to us
out of darkness. I bring you memories
of me – naked, happy, nine months’ pregnant
tasting applesauce in the kitchen.

I bring you the wind, the way
our house creaked as you rocked
our newborn daughter who couldn’t sleep.

I bring a handful of rain
that you may remember the sound of it,
and the smell of the earth
when you turn it in your hands.
I don’t know why our life took
the turn it did, but now the smell
of earth reminds you – the magnolia
tree you planted the day
our daughter was born: did it live?

I bring you tears, the ones you wept
mixed with the milky scent of those I kept
locked up in me as we sang our daughter
to sleep those first merciful years –
if I could I would give you wings
to carry you up to the sky.
When I kiss your eyes, your sudden cry
startles the magnolia to a deeper white.

THE ROOM WHERE THEY FOUND YOU
smelled of Madagascar vanilla.
After touching you for the last time
I scrubbed the scent from my skin – I would try
to remember later what the water felt like
on my hands but it was like trying to remember
thirst when you are drowning. They say love
doesn’t take much, you just have to be there
when it comes around. I’d been there
from the beginning, I’ve been here all along.

I believed in everything: the hope
in you, your brokenness, the way
you arranged cut flowers on a tray
beside my blue- and- white teacup, the cracked
cup I’d told you brought me luck, the note
you wrote, These flowers are a little ragged
– like your husband. The day you died

of an overdose in Vancouver
I found a moonshell in the forest, far
from the sea; when I picked it up
and pressed it to my ear I could hear you
taking the last breath you had the sad luck

to breathe. Our daughter cupped her hands
over her ears, as if she could stop death
from entering the life she had believed in
up until now. Childhood as she had known it
was over: the slap
of the breakers, the wind bruising the sea
tells her she is no longer safe in this world –
it’s you she needs. I see you pulling away
after shooting up in the car while we
stood crying on the road, begging
you to come home. The vast sky
does not stop wild clouds
from flying. This boundless grieving,
for whom is it carried on?

CONJUGAL VISIT
Nothing out of the ordinary, only
a doe and her fawn nudging
the hard yellow apple
you left on the grass, a fist- sized
Golden Delicious, the kind
that makes your mouth bleed
when you bite into it. The doe
raises her head when you step out
onto the deck to smoke your last
cigarette of the evening. Nothing
out of the ordinary, only the same
forgivable habit. I say, nothing
when you ask what’s the matter
later, and then I start weeping
I can’t help it I can’t
stop.

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You're In Canada Now . . .

You're In Canada Now . . .

A Memoir of Sorts
edition:eBook
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You're In Canada Now ...

You're In Canada Now ...

A Memoir of Sorts
edition:Paperback
tagged : essays
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Certain Things About My Mother

Certain Things About My Mother

Daughters Speak
edited by Susan Musgrave
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Force Field

Force Field

77 Women Poets of British Columbia
edited by Susan Musgrave
edition:Paperback
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Nerves Out Loud

Nerves Out Loud

Critical Moments in the Lives of Seven Teen Girls
edited by Susan Musgrave
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Perfectly Secret

Perfectly Secret

The Hidden Lives of Seven Teen Girls
edited by Susan Musgrave
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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The Fed Anthology

The Fed Anthology

Brand New Fiction and Poetry from the Federation of BC Writers
edited by Susan Musgrave
edition:Paperback
tagged : space opera
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You Be Me

You Be Me

Friendship in the Lives of Teen Girls
edited by Susan Musgrave
contributions by Aislinn Hunter & Anne Fleming
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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