By Charles Rammelkamp
Toward the end of her harrowing true crime memoir, Stephanie Dickinson writes that her own experience with missteps “has shown me that life sometimes does give you a second chance, and that we must seize it.” Razor Wire Wilderness focuses primarily on Krystal Riordan and Lucy Weems, two inmates in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton, New Jersey, a maximum security prison for women, how they got there, how they survive once they are incarcerated, their urgent pursuit of that second chance, that redemption.
Dickinson weaves her own story throughout Krystal’s and Lucy’s, from her dull mid-century childhood in rural Iowa to hitchhiking around North America as a teenager, rebelling against a repressive Midwestern mother, her fateful meeting with her friend Michael in Montreal, and eventually attending an inauspicious Thanksgiving Day party in North Carolina at the home of Michael’s psychopath friend Charlie, who, drunk and jealous, blasts her with a shotgun, rendering her left arm useless for the rest of her life.
Dickinson had already read Capote’s In Cold Blood, the newspaper stories of the Manson cult girls in the Tate-LaBianca murders, the accounts written by Auschwitz survivors, the brutal Andersonville prison camp during the American Civil War, when, in the summer of 2006, her attention was snagged by the lurid cover story in the New York Daily News, Hooker Watched Boyfriend Kill Teen, a true crime story about Krystal Riordan and her pimp lover Draymond Coleman and their victim Jennifer Moore, murdered in a shabby Weehawken, New Jersey hotel. Stephanie befriends Riordan, sympathetic to her through her own life experiences, and the friendship results in Dickinson’s much-heralded 2014 novel, Love Highway. Razor Wire Wilderness is as much backstory to that novel as it is a story of deliverance.
Krystal is born with the odds already stacked against her. Her mother, Eva, is a prostitute who neglected her children. Indeed, when Krystal reconnects with her mother years later, Eva steals from her! Lice-ridden, Krystal, already molested by an uncle before the age of five, and her younger sister Nicole are “rescued” by Child Services and subsequently adopted by the Riordans, a middle class family in Orange, Connecticut. Despite the parental attention, Nicole will become a junkie, Krystal a prostitute.
For almost a decade, Mrs. Riordan, a Girl Scout troop leader, ferries Krystal and Nicole around to therapy sessions, music lessons and, in 5’9” Krystal’s case, basketball practice, until one day, when Krystal is 14, her mother catches her in her bedroom with some boys, and after consulting a psychologist for “disturbed adolescents,” packs her off to a boarding school for troubled teens in Maine called Élan, which turns out to be more like a prison run by sadists than a nurturing educational institution. Students are humiliated and attacked by residents who are egged on by school officials. They shout, “You’re a whore!” and “We wish you were dead!” The whole approach is later described by investigators as a “brainwashing technique.”
Élan ultimately closed in 2011 after stories of deprivation and abuse circulated about the place whose annual tuition was around $50,000. Stories of suicides and prison were common. But in Krystal’s case, the damage had already been done – or exacerbated. After she graduates, it’s almost no wonder she turns to prostitution.
This is how she meets her psychopath, Draymond Coleman, a man almost twice her age, whom she loves with the passionate conviction of a person in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome. Dray is both her lover and her pimp. Often, at Draymond’s direction, they engage in threesomes with other girls, and indeed this is how things ultimately go wrong.
One night a group of teenagers from New Jersey comes to Manhattan for a night of fun. One, Jennifer Moore, get separated from her friends and falls into Draymond’s clutches. He takes her to the Weehawken hotel where he and Krystal are staying, and things get out of hand. Draymond strangles Jennifer, and he and Krystal dispose of the body. They are caught and Krystal winds up at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility (EMCF).
Dickinson describes the bleak existence at EMCF in great detail, from the treatment by guards to the work details to the humiliating desperation of “Toilet Paper Day” to the interaction among the inmates. It is at EMCF that Krystal meets her friend Lucy Weems.
Dickinson describes Lucy’s life in grim detail, from her rough treatment by an uncle, her life of drugs and prostitution, the heroin addiction that drives her to the grimmest decisions.
“It’s hard to get off the hooker hamster wheel,” Lucy confides. “I’ve given blowjobs for $400 and anal sex for $20. If you’re dope-sick, you’ll do anything.”
Dickinson describes the intensely possessive friendships among the women at EMCF and how Valentine’s Day with its explosions of love and sex is the signature holiday in prison. “Love’s an obstacle course that sometimes ends in blood,” she writes. Fights are usually about cheating.
By contrast, Mother’s Day is sad. Children are ashamed of their incarcerated mothers; mothers of inmates refuse to visit their daughters. Those that do are awkward and self-conscious. Dickinson tells the grim stories of so many of the women, like “Anna,” who has sex with her 14-year-old daughter’s boyfriend, for which she’s been sentenced to five years at EMCF.
Do Lucy and Krystal get a second chance? After her release, Lucy reunites with the father of her younger daughter and seems to be making a life, difficult though it often is. The COVID-19 pandemic occurs when Krystal is still facing five more years at EMCF, still determined to get out and start over. “I look forward to a normal bed,” she declares. “Wearing real clothes and shoes….There is so much I want to do.”
In a final reflection, Dickinson dreams of a final redemption for all the girls – for everybody – who has taken a wrong turn, made a disastrous decision. Razor Wire Wilderness is a fascinating look at a world so many of us never encounter.
You can find the book here: https://www.kallistogaiapress.org/product/razor-wire-wilderness/
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.