By Amy Brozio-Andrews

Visiting Life
Women Doing Time on the Outside

By Bridget Kinsella
Harmony Books, 2007

When Bridget Kinsella begins a correspondence with Pelican Bay inmate Rory Mehan, she never expects that their relationship will go beyond the professional; she was a literary agent, he was a writer. But as the months (and letters) pass, Bridget begins to think of Rory in more intimate terms than a colleague, and he her. Which gets her thinking:
What kind of woman is it who leads a "visiting life," one who serves time with her husband or boyfriend? "Now I don't know these women, but I'm guessing they were very different from me," she thinks, sitting across the table from Rory in the visiting room during one of her first visits. "I've never shot up drugs. And I can't imagine getting it on in a prison yard." Wrestling with her own personal demons, she never imagined she'd find emotional support and release from a convicted murderer. Was she really any different than any of these other women?

Bridget Kinsella's Visiting Life: Women Doing Time on the Outside is a unique blend of reporting and memoir. Bridget's own story-- an early divorce, the prospect of turning 40, the realization that her long-held dream of motherhood wasn't likely to come true-- is inter-cut with the profiles and interviews of several women whose husbands and boyfriends are inmates at Pelican Bay.

Kinsella's approach with her fellow visiting women is always gentle and nonjudgmental. She shares their stories with respect, reflecting their intelligence, strength, and resilience, and noting with care issues faced by couples and families challenged by imprisonment. Each woman gets a chapter to herself, in which she shares how she met her partner, how much she knows about her partner's crimes, and the reactions of her family and friends to her relationship with an inmate. The women Kinsella profiles come from varied backgrounds and life experiences. Taken together with Kinsella's own experiences, it's clear that while every woman who decides to share her life with a prison inmate is different, their stories are similar-- the financial difficulties, the loneliness, the concern about family and friends'

Brutally honest about the emotional trauma that has haunted her for years, Kinsella's raw exposure of her vulnerabilities is searing. Her emotional reliance on Rory and his willingness to be the salve that lets her finally heal is validated by the rewarding yet poignant conclusion to her book. Excerpts of Rory's letters illustrate the depth of his feelings for Kinsella and his desire and willingness to help her move forward emotionally. It's hard not to be skeptical about Rory's motives; as Kinsella herself acknowledges, he could be a master at manipulation. But their consistent and long-term connection affirms the genuineness of their relationship.

The book occasionally wanders into excessive navel-gazing on Kinsella's part, but the emotional growth and personal revelations she experiences far outweigh any weakness in the narrative. Her warm and intimate writing style carries the reader along; while aspects of Kinsella's story have caused her profound sorrow, her story is never sad. The ultimate resolution of her and Rory's relationship, as well as the decisions she makes in moving forward with her life, overcoming the obstacles to her happiness in ways she never imagined, eliminates any skepticism on the part of the reader that Rory's too good to be true or that Kinsella isn't fully aware of what she's gotten herself into.


Damage Control
Women on the Therapists, Beauticians, and Trainers who Navigate Their Bodies

by Emma Forrest Avon, 2007

I've always had a love/hate relationship with getting my hair cut. On the one hand, I love the idea of reinvention, like if I look great, then everything else in my life will magically fall into place. On the other hand, I get extremely anxious about trusting someone else with how I look, the image I show the world. Really, it all goes back to an awful haircut in the '80s. I ended up with one of those have-it-both ways cuts, where one side was super-short and skimmed my ear while the other, longer, layered side was big and blown out; I cried for hours and ended up back at the salon to get it fixed. "Why didn't you just say you didn't want this?" the hairdresser asked. Um, I was 12. I didn't know I could say no.

With equally personal anecdotes and self-analysis, the almost two dozen women who have contributed to Damage Control: Women on the Therapists, Beauticians, and Trainers Who Navigate Their Bodies, edited by Emma Forrest, reveal their own love/hate relationships with hairdressers, manicurists, massage therapist, personal trainers, tattoo artists, and more. The book also includes brief interviews with these same beauty professionals, revealing that the complexity of these encounters often cuts both ways.

Writers, actresses, and journalists, including Minnie Driver, Rose McGowan, Jennifer Belle, and Francesca Lia Block talk honestly about their insecurities and their vulnerabilities, the trust (sometimes misplaced) that they've placed in the beauty and aesthetic professionals they've turned to, and the effects-- some long-reaching-- of these encounters. Marian Keyes fights the urge to blow up when she's kept waiting at her appointment for a blow out.
Jennifer Belle marvels at her body's ability to recognize the touch of the massage therapist she'd last seen years ago in another life.

The tone and focus of the essays compiled by editor Emma Forrest (author of Namedropper, Cherries in the Snow) is wide-ranging, reflecting a diversity of age, experience, culture, economics, and more. The deeply personal revelations of the writers are surprising, and at first blush, almost too intimate to be sharing with a total stranger like me, an ordinary reader. But that's the unexpected appeal of Damage Control. The value placed on beauty, however it's defined across cultures, does have an effect on women, as do the steps we take and the people we turn to for help to achieve it. Whether they're reeling from bad breakups or serious health problems, resolving family secrets or personal demons, each of the contributors to Damage Control shares commentary, analysis, and camaraderie that is relatable to all readers. Who can't remember the sudden realization that the "perfect"
haircut is all wrong? While some women love getting massages, what about those of us who hate being touched? While many women love spilling their secrets to their manicurist, if you stop and listen, what can your manicurist tell you?

While at times the anthology does feel slightly too broad in scope, I think it's more a testament to the numerous ways in which women have the opportunity to manipulate their bodies-- massages and personal training sessions, manicures and blow outs, reflexology and acupuncture, cosmetics and plastic surgery, thereby providing an overarching cohesiveness to the book, despite the differences between the individual essays.

Amy Brozio-Andrews ( is a freelance writer and book reviewer.


© Melt Magazine 2007