I was engaged by Stephanie Mencimer’s disturbing depiction of prisoners roused from their beds and spirited to Ohio in the dead of night (“Prisoners of Love,” 6/13)not dissimilar, it seemed, from disappearances characteristic of Latin American dictatorships. Unfortunately, Mencimer didn’t take this description further than her lead. We were left with the haunting image looming, unexplained and unchallenged, for the rest of the article. The dramatic relocation scheme is normalized, much like the relationships of Mencimer’s van friends, into the alternative reality that appears to be prison life.
While I was impressed with Mencimer’s footwork, I was nagged throughout by a tone that I couldn’t quite grasp. Was it the detachment
of the anthropological participant/ observer? Or was it a form of condescension? (Or, perhaps, an entwining of the two.) We know from the outset that Mencimer is not like these women: She is white, not black; she is a volunteer at Hannah House,
not a user of the facility; she is a reporter for Washington City Paper, not a clerk at Nordstrom or CVS.
Despite these admitted differences, until the final two paragraphs Mencimer placed herself on a nearly level playing field with the women and men she was describing. Their lives were displayed with empathy and, for the most part, understanding. With her description of her
own life at the end of the piece, however, her real-life fiancé, who bought her a ring, who’s giving her a country wedding, etc., Mencimer effectively delegitimizes the lives she has chosen to portray by painting her own as the normative baseline of existence. While those who travel each weekend to Youngstown have clearly normalized a way of life that people from privilege cannot possibly want to emulate, their lives are not unreal. I was dismayed at the inclusion of this paragraph into an otherwise perceptive piece.
via the Internet