Toward the end of 2005, in the hopes of curing some recent heartbreak and a bout of writer's block, Diane Schoemperlen took on a volunteer position at Vinnie's free hot-meal program. After reluctantly accepting an invitation from a friend to peel potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner, she found the Kingston kitchen to be a lively, warm and welcoming distraction.
After three months of working there, Schoemperlen was intrigued by the arrival of their new Friday dishwasher – a powerful-looking man in his late 50s, with straight white teeth and shiny brown hair. He walked with a slight limp, had a teardrop tattoo below his left eye and reminded her of Vince Vaughn, one of her favourite Hollywood actors.
He was also serving a life sentence for second-degree murder.
By the time Schoemperlen discovered the details of this stranger's 1981 crime, she was already abiding by the principles fundamental to working at Vinnie's – don't judge, don't assume and everyone deserves to be seen. It was with this rare open-heartedness that she eventually let that dishwasher, who she calls Shane, into her life, and later her home. The decision was one that Schoemperlen certainly never anticipated, but he nonetheless became an integral part of the following six years.
It may be difficult for us to understand how someone can fall in love with a murderer, but This Is Not My Life gracefully answers that question in all its daunting complexity. The book details the highs and lows of Schoemperlen's turbulent romantic relationship with Shane, during a period of time when he was incarcerated, then out on tenuous parole, only to be incarcerated again. It takes us through prison visits, overnight stays, letters, phone calls and the 49 troubled days the couple managed to live together. In doing so, it not only helps us understand what it takes to make such a unique (and stigmatized) relationship work, but offers a journey into the minutiae of the prison system, and the unimaginable patience necessary to navigate it. In fact, this book is as much a dramatic retelling of a romance gone wrong as it is an education on Correctional Service Canada.
Of course, a memoir of this nature runs the real risk of being a narrative of shock value and morbid curiosity, but the proven gifts of the writer in question instead make for a sensitive account of human intimacy. Domestic details anchor extreme plot points in welcome familiarity, with shared dinners made, laundry folded and home repairs bickered over. It certainly helps that Schoemperlen consistently writes from a place of nuance and empathy – toward Shane, toward those in similar circumstances and, most importantly, toward herself.
As we watch Schoemperlen try to maintain a "normal" intimate connection with someone mired in the Canadian correctional system, we are reminded of how much prison dehumanizes not only those inside, but those, such as Schoemperlen, who choose to support them. The author advocates for the vital role of rehabilitation and underscores how those who have spent a lifetime behind bars desperately struggle to acclimatize when they find any modicum of freedom. Beyond all else, this book is a commentary on how often the system fails those it aims to rehabilitate and the public it intends to protect.
Though this is certainly a unique relationship with its own specific set of challenges, many readers who have ever found themselves in love with the "wrong person" will identify with Schoemperlen's emotional reflections. She rightly centres herself in the story, and chronicles her own perceived flaws and insecurities with generous candour. She's unafraid to admit her personal contributions to the couple's failed dynamic – her need for space and quiet, her supposed selfishness and stubbornness, her desire to have things a certain way. By her own admission, she holds onto a broken thing for far too long, determined to make it work when it only breeds profound unhappiness. Via this self-critique, she paradoxically reveals incredible endurance, strength and compassion.
"I'd been in love with the story – not the reality – of my life joined with Shane's," she writes. "The story of myself as the one who could lead him out of the darkness, the one who could make him whole, happy, healthy. The story of myself as the one who could save him."
It is actually Schoemperlen's profound gift for self-reflection that elevates This Is Not My Life beyond its potential exploitation and titillation. Via exquisite prose, Shane and Diane could stand in for any struggling, dysfunctional couple who should have walked away sooner, the pitfalls of their interpersonal dynamics relatable despite their extreme circumstances. There are certainly recognizable moments of jealousy, manipulation and anger, but also moments of tenderness, laughter and love.
In Schoemperlen's skillful retelling of a difficult period in her life, Shane is not merely a simplistic villain caricature worthy of blanket scorn, as much as she is not a naive, victimized woman led astray by a murderer. Instead, two incompatible people find love, and over time try – and disastrously fail – to make things work. It may be easy for us to offer immediate disdain to someone who happens to fall for a criminal, but This Is Not My Life is a compelling argument to reserve knee-jerk judgment, and offer much-needed understanding in its place.