Thao Nguyen | Radio Silence | October 2014 | 6 minutes (1500 words)

Radio SilenceOur latest Longreads Exclusive: A brief encounter between a singer and an inmate at a women’s prison. Thank you to Radio Silence for sharing this story—you can subscribe to Radio Silence, or download the free iOS app.
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Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

—W. H. Auden

Suzy Mellen is very supportive of my career. Her optimism flies in the face of music-industry reality, and she reminds me of my mom. Suzy says, “Your record is going to go platinum! When are you going to go platinum?” I smile apologetically and tell her probably never.

“Not with that attitude,” she says.

It seems an inefficient use of our visitation time to explain why the music I make will probably never go platinum, why the tiny plot of land on which I work has no minerals.

“Write it on a card,” she says. “Write PLATINUM on a card and put it in your wallet. Carry it with you everywhere. You have to carry your truth into reality.”

Suzy Mellen is a big fan of The Secret, a sweepingly popular self-help book based on the law of attraction and how positive thinking can bring you happiness. I have never read it.

She lifts her left foot to show me the sole of her standard-issue tennis shoe. “See?”

She’s written FREEDOM in Sharpie.

My throat tightens when I see the bottom of her shoe.

“I walk my freedom,” she says. “I walk my freedom into reality.”

Suzy was sentenced to life without parole in 1998 for a murder she did not commit. You are perhaps doubtful. When I share Suzy’s circumstances, people like to jump in and tell me that all prisoners claim they didn’t do it. First, I have found that to be false; everyone I talk to who did what she is charged with acknowledges it, and second, really, Suzy didn’t do it. After more than fifteen years of thwarted efforts and stalled progress, a lawyer with the pro bono group Innocence Matters has stepped in, and Suzy’s case has surged forward. The key witness testimony, which served as the crux of the prosecution’s case, has been discredited several times over. A new district attorney is working with Suzy’s lawyer to clear her name. There is real talk of impending release. So maybe The Secret is working. Finally.

No one on the visiting team can believe it. In our collective experience, nothing that benefits those incarcerated ever happens at any kind of clip, be it clemency, release for wrongful conviction, or parole. I am told by formerly incarcerated members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners that the parole process is widely regarded as completely arbitrary. The wry joke is that your parole rests on whether or not the members of the parole board ate good breakfasts the morning of your hearing, or if anyone argued with a spouse before work. Often, people with no disciplinary infractions on their records are denied parole. It is deemed that they’ve not enrolled in enough self-help classes, no matter the number they’ve completed. Or the board will determine that the prisoner has not yet demonstrated enough insight into the crime she committed, no matter the evidence to the contrary. Last year, one of our members was denied parole after more than forty years inside. A trans man, they said he showed a confusion and dishonesty regarding his gender and therefore could not be trusted to conduct himself honorably in the free world. There is a seemingly sinister element of caprice threatening any potential reprieve. We are all guardedly hopeful for Suzy.

* * *

Suzy has lively blue eyes, regally high cheekbones, and silver-blond hair that frames a wide, friendly face. Every time I see her (even before the break in her case), she is jubilant, vibrating at a much more ecstatic level than the rest of us, and speaking in rapid, pious, often rhyming aphorisms. Suzy Mellen loves God. I like Suzy so much that I feel closer to God after I see her, as if a friend of Suzy’s is a friend of mine.

She leads a prayer circle that is very well attended. Sometimes I can’t tell if she knows she is being hilarious. Other times, when she offhandedly recounts her Bible-class lectures, I am sure she knows that she is a comedic force.

Suzy tells them:

“I used to do crystal meth, but now Jesus is my rock.”

“I get high on the most high because there’s no greater high than the most high.”

“I’m totally addicted to Jesus.”

“Attitude of gratitude,” she reminds me. All of her tones are certain. Suzy is even grateful that she’s made the best of her time in prison: She got off drugs and got close to God and helps her friends. Suzy says “a life without parole is still a life with purpose.”

When Suzy was arrested, she was at McDonald’s with her youngest daughter (nine at the time), about to order a Happy Meal. She described how the police took her, how her daughter had sensed something was wrong before they even appeared. She was charged with killing an ex-boyfriend with whom she had not been in contact. The lead detective and the DA, hungry for an arrest and conviction, placed Suzy at the scene of the crime based on those aforementioned falsified witness statements. A man who was present at the murder (at the risk of incriminating himself) is preparing to go on record stating that Suzy was nowhere nearby.

Suzy has a standing date with her daughter at McDonald’s when she gets out. The only time I see her sad is when she says, “I promised my daughter a Happy Meal. I have to keep my promise.”

* * *

I would not let Suzy down. I cut up an old party invitation (the only thing around of durable paper stock) and write in Sharpie. When I go out on tour, I keep the PLATINUM card in my wallet and Suzy’s most recent letter in my backpack. She traced her left hand on it. It’s been all over the U.S. and Europe. I read it when I hate my job, when I am exhausted and want to go home but cannot.

In the letter she writes: “I am in prison but prison is not in me. I can celebrate every day I live on purpose and love on purpose and that’s what gives me a joyful heart. Just being thankful. Someone didn’t wake up this morning. So I’m so grateful.”

After I read that paragraph, I am fine. I feel lucky; I feel like a foolish asshole. I love my job and my life, and I am grateful. I don’t know what it says about me that I must return to her letter repeatedly, but at least it works every time.

On our first visit we talked about dancing the running man. I don’t remember how it came up. I told her that I do it when I’m on tour, to get pumped up backstage and to get the blood flowing at rest areas. I stood up to demonstrate but remembered the guards nearby and where we were and my role there as a legal advocate, so I sat demurely back down.

Suzy has declared that once she gets out we will dance the running man together, and I will be in the book she writes, and there will also be a made-for-TV movie.

Typically Suzy is my last visit of the day and the best person with whom to wrap up so many hours of witnessing and absorbing emotional tumult. She is a wellspring of energy and light, and we all gravitate to her for hope, ease, and momentum.

On our most recent visit, several of us were sitting with Suzy, shooting the breeze, winding down the day. I said I was headed out of town for a vacation. She looked at me deadpan and said, “I told God I wanted to go on vacation, and then I went to prison. So be careful.”

Our table burst into laughter, and the correctional officers eyed us suspiciously. I wondered who they would find to do her justice in the made-for-TV movie.

I was scheduled to see Suzy last month. With hedged excitement, her friend told me she was in court, presumably because her case is moving.

The next time I see Suzy, may it be in the free world. I’ll write that on a card and put it in my wallet.

* * *

On October 10, 2014, nine days after Radio Silence first published this piece, Suzy Mellen was released after seventeen years in prison. She was exonerated of all charges.

Thao Nguyen behind the scenes at Austin City Limits:

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Originally published in Radio Silence, October 2014. Subscribe, and download the free iOS app.