Last year Oprah interviewed a woman with an amazing story who wrote a book about it, A Tale of Two Lives. I saw the interview the other day. In her twenties Susan Marie Walsh was arrested in Michigan for possession of 2 grams of heroin. The prosecutor told her if she pled guilty she wouldn’t go to prison. So she did – and got 20 years.
After a year’s horrific prison life she escaped. Being wanted by the FBI, she couldn’t use her social security number. So she’d get a job and transpose a couple of the numbers of her social security. Eventually the system would kick up the discrepancy. Her employer would ask her to correct what they thought was an honest mistake.
Susan would move on. For ten years she lived like this. Then met and married the man of her dreams. She created a new life for herself. The perfect white picket fence life of an upper middle class stay-at-home Mom. But although she was very happy, and totally committed to her husband and children in a real way, she couldn’t afford to get complacent. Couldn’t ever get a speeding ticket or anything official where she’d be asked for her social security number. She also knew that at any moment she could be discovered.
Which of course is what happened. One day the cops showed up and arrested her. I try to imagine what they must have been like, after all that time of being a fugitive, constantly on her guard, knowing her husband and children didn’t know the truth about her. A relief in one way and a nightmare in another. She spent 18 months in jail again, but was eventually released, free at last. No more hiding.
You might think somebody who had lived such a double life would be a scheming hypocrite. But she’s not. She was crucified very unjustly by a criminal justice system that often has nothing to do with justice; and she had the courage and resourcefulness to run from her punishment and give herself a second chance. The love between her and her husband – and her children – wasn’t and isn’t a lie. They were angry and hurt at first, but they understood and didn’t judge her. There’s unconditional love for you.
Oprah made the point that Marie finally was able to be free because of her race and that she could afford expensive lawyers this time round. Marie agreed, saying in her time in prison she met so many Americans other than white languishing there with 20 year sentences because they made mistakes. The justice system – and it’s not just in America – is’t about fairness or equality or penultimate right and wrong.
The worst criminals in the world walk free because they can employ fancy lawyers and/or bribe officials. CEO’s in financial institutions responsible for entire countries’ financial crises walk free, unscathed, unpunished. Marie’s prosecutor resentfully said she should have had to accept her original punishment, just like others did. 20 years for 2 grams of heroin? There was a twistedness to him that was very distressing to watch. And no capacity to stand outside the system that he was a part of and see it’s inadequacies and how skewed it is.
I believe the final word on what’s fair, right and wrong doesn’t rest with the law, in any country. If we make mistakes that cross the legal boundary does it mean we’re obliged to give up the rest of our lives? I don’t think so. I think we have the God-given right to do what Marie did. I’m glad she got away in the first place and gave herself a second chance. I’m also glad she was finally released and can live out the rest of her life in peace.