My conversations with killers (while pregnant)

I spent most of 2007 and 2008 working as a psychologist-intern at two Chicago-area maximum security prisons.  I was also pregnant.

The smells of sweat and urine and feces made me throw up only once the whole time, and later the prison corn bread easily made up for that episode (can you say pure pregnancy craving gold?)  I  actually waddled the musty wings of Stateville Correctional Center up until the night I gave birth.

I called my supervisor on the way to the hospital: I guess that tightening in my stomach throughout the malingering didactic was me going into labor.  Tell Roy and Kelly thanks for taking my suicide watch rounds; I’m off to bring life into the world.

And that was only the beginning of the unsettling juxtapositions I encountered that year.

Have you ever had a man who murdered a dozen people refer to you as ma’am and offer to let you sit in his more-comfortable chair?  I have.

Have you ever had a nightmare about gun shots blasting through your back while you are asleep in post-epidural relaxation?  I have.

A lot of my job as a psych intern was checking boxes; asking routine suicide assessment questions with detoxing and post-traumatic offenders.  However, real conversations happened too.  Individual therapy sessions where men made nonchalant comments about being shot at while watching TV in their own homes or about being held under-water by an uncle or set on-fire by an enemy? Those happened.  Group therapy sessions where long-timers acknowledged life was better for them inside the walls of prison, because they stopped having to look over their shoulder or feel that they had something to prove?  Those happened.

Over the course of a year, this white girl from Wisconsin shamelessly picked the brains of the men at Stateville.  I administered complex psychological evaluations on twice the number of offenders that was required of me, and asked the men invasive questions until they looked at me sideways and feigned exhaustion.  I scoured Ebsco, and quoted research in my write-ups; My supervisor looked at me a little strangely and slowly remarked, “I’ve never… seen anyone…. do that before… Hmmm.”

I simply  wanted answers.  We need to know why people make their choices before we can even begin to help change them.

I wanted to know about the role of experiences and family support and innate personality on gang affiliations and relationship/parenting and drug use choices.  I wanted to know about how larger culture, racism, and the micorchosm of the south-side affected their senses of restriction, hope, adequacy, or powerlessness.  And did this lead them to where they are today?? Did that guy have psychopathic traits because he was hardened by neglect and abuse and formed an adaptive survival mechanism? Or was he born looking at people as objects? Did that guy strangle his girlfriend because he had an organic difficulty with impulse control and sociopathy, or were there also some post-traumatic emotional dynamics?  Did drug use play a role in the behavior, or did the behavior lead to the drug use?  Or both? And were the drugs because of traumas or genes? Or both?

When I asked these mostly South-side Chicagoans, with wide eyes and genuine curiosity, “Why didn’t you chose not to join a gang? [Thought bubble: I mean my DARE instructor told me that you should just not join in the first place.  That easy. Duh. I mean go to college instead.]” they explained what I would later hear again in an episode of This American Life:  Just existing and breathing air on a certain side of the street means you are in a gang, and there is no hiding under the radar or getting the target off your back.  You better get your hands on a gun and not walk alone if you know what’s good for you.

Oh.  I scratched my head. So you’re telling me, the problem is bigger than telling kids to go to college and offering assistance to single mothers?  How did the “street” culture get that way in the first place?


You mean to tell me all of my simplistic, easy-answer world views  have been wrong?? THE D.A.R.E. PROGRAM LIED TO ME!!

And then comes the larger conversation that no one wants to have. It is the one about how when we take a bunch of people, and remove understanding and respect, and then add a bunch of oppression and hopelessness, we end up with “cultural” defense mechanisms. 

If an individual is told he is a piece of shit his whole life, but by some miracle, he gets a scholarship to Yale, the likely outcome is that he will FAIL out of Yale due to the larger psychological expectations of inadequacy and failure. And he might find a different way to momentarily feel powerful and adequate, even if it is at the risk of his own life.  (Says research.  And another This American Life episode.)  Now.  Apply that to a whole culture.

I went back to Stateville, part-time, a month after I gave birth.  Every three hours, I sat in a storage closet with two suction cups attached to my nipples trying to absorb myself in the regurgitated Buddhism of Eckhart Tolle in paperback. There were the childhoods of the men in Stateville.  And then there was the life that my kid was going to have.  My kid’s mom was pumping breast milk and pondering detachment-from-ego; MY kid was cradled in his gandmother’s arms on a safe and quiet park bench. Birds chirped in the background of my reverie…

I thought about how my fat, healthy, white-skinned boy was born with two healthy parents in this crazy North-Chicago suburb where the moms walked around obsessing about BPA and Baby Einstein.  The pediatrician, a Notre Dame alumnus, gently nudged ronnies massive thigh during  his 8 week checkup: “This kid is going to be fighting Irish someday.” My kid was already pegged for college by near-strangers.

Back in the the prison closet, I thought about the offender who I just met, curled up in a ball on the infirmary floor. He was not detoxing, and was stone-sober.  But there he was, terrified for his life.  The nurse had come toward him with a needle, and he had flashed-back to the time he was stabbed nearly to death with a pocket knife.  When he was seven.  By his ten year old neighbor, while his mom was at work.  His dad was dead.  I bet no one tickled his leg and teased about what college he was going to attend.

Even Medela knew it was wrong, and let me know-so through a steady rhythm of  disapproving noises: Nua Nooo, Nua noo, Nua nooo.

I have been pondering my experience being pregnant in a prison recently.  Because I concluded, through dozens of evaluations and conversations with murderers, the following:

 I am not that different from them.  Are any of us?

If he were born to the exact same circumstances in the exact same place in the exact same time-of-history, would my kid have someday ended up on the other side of the bars? [Note:  The answer is a resounding hell yes. My child is a person with needs for adequacy and belonging and power and respect and hope, just the same as anyone else.]

My uncomfortably simple question now is this:  If we sat down with the same curiosity toward the school shooters and the terrorists and the drug-lords and all the others who are destroying our world, would we come to the same conclusion?  Are the cultures of oppression and abuse and powerlessness and belittling and disconnection and blind eyes and deaf ears, breeding sociopathy?  In a different place and time, where we haven’t removed respect and understanding in favor of hopelessness and oppression, would many of the exact same people be acting very differently?

Just something to think about, Sincerely, this psychologist, who, if she’s really honest, would guess that maybe 2% of the population is a primary psychopath, and likely most drug king-pins are… And they usually come up as having “atypical” traits on psych testing that could be construed as anything from autism spectrum to psychosis, but we still have a long way to go on figuring out brain mechanisms….


For more on kids, psychology, and relationships, visit OTYC on Facebook.

Updated Note: I coincidentally started reading this book two days after I wrote this post, and if anyone is interested in this topic, it’s so-far one of the best books I’ve ever read:




3 thoughts on “My conversations with killers (while pregnant)

  1. Interesting article. I’d love to hear more about any insight you gained from your questioning. I’m an attorney and am court appointed to represent a client at Statesville, so I have had similar thoughts and emotions while visiting. I also wonder about breaking the cycle of incarceration as I sit in the waiting room with children dressed in their Sunday best waiting to visit their family members.

    • The insight I gained is: the problem is way too overwhelming for me to offer any answers, but as a society we need to start acknowledging the complexities of people if we are going to move toward improvement. It’s emotionally exhausting to REALLY think about it, isn’t it?

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