Author and activist Ebony Roberts joined Ashley Lucas, former director of the Prison Creative Arts Project, to discuss Roberts’s memoir about falling in love with a man who was incarcerated, “The Love Prison Made and Unmade: My Story.” A crowd of about 50 people attended the event at the Ann Arbor District Library on Thursday.
Roberts received a doctorate in educational psychology from Michigan State University. She formed a deep bond with Shaka Senghor, who is formerly incarcerated, over the course of his last four years of incarceration of his 20-year sentence. They co-parent a child together, and though they are no longer together, they still work very closely in their professional relationship. Roberts started a private publishing company to help publish the books Senghor wrote while incarcerated, as well as helped with other needs that Senghor had while incarcerated.
Roberts and Lucas spoke to the audience about their history as long-time friends as well as collaborators while discussing how Roberts prepared herself for this book. Roberts said she never thought she would be writing a book, due to her primarily writing dissertations.
“I never intended to write this book. The book was initially going to be a ‘he said, she said’ (with Shaka); Shaka is a writer, I’m a writer, and we had discussed writing a book together about our love story and how we met and fell in love.” Roberts said, “(but) after Shaka came home, we published his memoir about his life before he went to prison and his transformation in prison, and he had spoken a little on our relationship, and it was almost like, ‘Okay, well, that’s sort of been told, we don’t need to rehash the story.’ … (Shaka said,) ‘I’ve already told the story from my perspective, I think you should still tell the story, but from your perspective.”
LSA senior Ethan Szlezinger told The Daily Roberts’ book and her perspective really drew him in.
“I was surprised by the specific details that somebody who's in that situation could only know,” Szlezinger said. “For example, when she was talking about the carpools and the transportation to get to the prisons (for visitations), that’s something that somebody outside of the prison system doesn't know about and would just never consider.”
Lucas noted the perspective that Roberts’s memoir adds to the rhetoric around fighting back against the prison industrial complex.
“You can get a sense from reading about her that she is a woman of remarkable fortitude, and resourcefulness — that she has strong principles and is brave enough to take a stand against the prison industrial complex, which severely diminishes all of our lives, whether we know it or not,” Lucas said.
While Roberts accompanied Senghor on his tour promoting his book “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison,” she said people kept asking her for her side of the story and were urging her to write about her experience as his partner. She said she was nervous to write a memoir because it was an unfamiliar format, as it was one that asked for a lot of emotional transparency.
“At that point, it was almost as if, you know, the universe was pushing me to tell the story because it needed to be told, that there were people who needed to hear my story and who could get something out of it,” Roberts said.
Senghor and Roberts began a deeply committed relationship that involved hundreds of letters, expensive phone calls and visitations that required a sometimes eight- to 10-hour drive. Roberts said she found support from online forums, and she spoke to how this allowed her to feel less isolated during these years. In terms of the letters they exchanged, Roberts explained how detailed and eloquent the two made their letters and how this contributed to the way their relationship functioned.
“Our letters were extremely long in detail, and tight, most of them — and I mean eight to 10 pages, sometimes longer. And so, we got to know each other in ways that we don't typically get to know each other because — especially now with social media, email, text messaging, really anything quick,” Roberts said. “We’re not even on the phone as much as we used to be, so the letters were an integral part of getting to know each other and our intimate thoughts and being able to really share.”
Roberts said one year their calls cost $3,000.
Lucas shared her personal involvement in the carceral system, discussing how her father was incarcerated during her childhood and how engaging with loved ones through the carceral system can put a strain on families.
Lucas asked Roberts about her own experiences in this realm, and Roberts admitted not taking very good care of herself during the years in which she focused only on Senghor. Within this dynamic, Roberts said she often found herself spending all of her time on Sengor’s work, which led to a decline in her own wellbeing.
“Any relationship, and that relationship, with power dynamics, aren’t bound because he was solely dependent on me for a lot of things,” Roberts said. “I took that responsibility seriously, and I spent a lot of days not taking care of myself as well as I needed to, but it was because I felt like he needed me, needed the support to do the things that he wants to do. And there were times when I was so depressed that I didn’t leave the house… I just kind of built a little cocoon around myself.”
Roberts said she knows that he is her soulmate, though the two are no longer in a romantic relationship.
“I do believe that we are soulmates, and soulmates come into our lives to shake things up, right?” Roberts said. “You think of the soulmate story as the fairy tale, and you’re going to ride off into the sunset, and you’re going to have all this bliss, but in fact, it's the opposite, because your soulmate is usually your mirror, and in many ways, Shaka was my mirror, and a lot of his trauma mirrored my trauma but in different ways.”
Engineering junior Shimonti Sengupta, event coordinator of the Prison Birth Project, attended the talk. She said she really enjoyed hearing about what it was like having a loved one return home, from Roberts’ perspective.
“Listening to her talk about what it was like for her to prepare, and for families to prepare, for incarcerated individuals to come back, I think is really interesting,” Sengupta said.
Roberts said she works to combat the stereotype of being the “insecure woman” that is the perfect candidate to fall in love with a person who is incarcerated. Lucas asked her to share how she did so, and Roberts responded that she hopes that readers enter the book with an open mind.
“There are some people who feel like, ‘She had all these insecurities, and he fed her all these beautiful words, and she fell for it, hook, line and sinker,’” Roberts said. “People are going to walk away from the book with different opinions. Sometimes people walk into any situation already with their mind made, so they read it, and it only confirms what they already believe. But then sometimes you can read something with an open mind, and it can actually change your mind and makes you think about things differently.”