For six years, I worried about who would hold my criminal record against me when I left prison and returned to the dating scene. I knew that my name would be Googled by people and they would know a story about me, before we even met.
Years ago, people would learn about each other by interacting, choosing what to reveal and when to reveal it. Now we have electronic dossiers guiding us through our interactions with any new prospect. These virtual introductions don’t make life easier for me.
“Let’s just hope that when you meet someone, he won’t Google your name,” a friend of a friend told me.
“He will,” I predicted.
“Maybe after you’ve already gone out?” The hope in her voice had become a weak squeak.
Displayed like a museum of dysfunction — my trial, convictions, myriad incorrect psychiatric diagnoses and my family’s problems — will lay themselves out for perusal. I don’t fear that these things will come out. They are out. People who haven’t already read these items will simply discover them after they meet me.
My convictions remain on appeal, but I am still a woman with a rap. I assumed that the only guys who would date me would be those with their own records, statistically not an intellectual crowd. Meeting someone who has not done time hangs me with a Catch 22: Either I must disclose everything from the start and risk rejection, or conceal the matter, hoping that I can explain it when confronted.
“Change your name” is the advice I get most often when I worry about this. But changing my name assumes that I will never again interact with anyone I met with my given name. Now in my 40s, I am already known.
And I am known in ways I never expected.
“Hi Beautiful! I read about your story. I am so glad you’re out. Are you single?”
Since I was released from prison three years ago, I have received more than 100 of these types of messages through Facebook.
Hearing about these advances, my friend Carol said to me: “There are guys who like women who just got out of prison.” When I was released, Carol had been out for four years and knew the ropes of a single woman paired with a felony conviction.
“Who would want someone with a record?” I guffawed at her.
“A lot of ‘em,” she said.
After wondering who would hold my past against me, now I worried about who would hold it in my favor, this underground cabal of men who text each other links to the news stories of our arrests and convictions with the message “She’s out. On Facebook.”
For the first several months of my freedom, I batted away messages and friend requests from men from Sydney; Bonn, Germany; Kuala Lumpur; Inglewood, Calif.; and towns near me in Connecticut. Men all willing to travel to meet me because they Googled my name and were convinced I was the stereotypical released female offender: sex-starved, lonely, lawless. In my most rejectable state, I had dozens of suitors.
One of the messages stood out for being more polite and less forward than the rest.
“May I send you a friend request?” He was friends with six of my friends, so I said sure. We started messaging each other. Sometimes about the World Cup. Or about the screenplay I was writing. He said he was earning his MBA while working a veterans’ health center. Meaningless exchanges, but notes with the intellectual edge of college education. It was conversation I never had in prison. (Unlike most inmates, I had graduated from an Ivy League school about a decade before my arrest and convictions.) We would spar and he never dropped an apostrophe or split an infinitive. Occasionally he riffed on how women like men who treat them badly, that they reject the nice ones because they are too safe. I assumed he said this because he was one of the good guys.
“How do you know Aimee?” I asked him about one of our mutual friends.
“From school.” From his and Aimee’s profiles I could see they went to neighboring high schools.
“I see they have good English grammar classes at Delaware.”
“Not even close to my major.”
“What was your major?”
“That’s hard core. I respect that.” I wrote back.
“Respect it enough to meet me sometime?”
He was friends with Aimee and five other of my friends. He was patient with me as I asked “How do I do that on here?” as I learned to use social media, having missed out on its boom while in the clink. He seemed somewhat cute in his pictures. But to be honest, he had me at physics.
“Maybe,” I wrote back.
I had not been on a date in seven years. But if he knew my friends from York Correctional Institution, then he already knew that I had been there, too.
“C’mon, Pretty, I want to meet you. Of course in a public place. You can come with your friends for backup. This is legit,” he prodded me.
As I decided whether we should meet, I noticed the ranks of his female-offender Facebook friends growing as we messaged back and forth.
So I asked: “How do I know what you’re not one of those guys who looks for women from York?”
“Stop talking in riddles,” he said.
“I’m not talking in riddles.”
“What does ‘women from York’ even mean? That makes no sense.”
“The prison. York CI.” I wrote back.
“That’s what it’s called?”
“How did you think I knew Aimee?
“I was there. For six years.”
“Had no idea.”
“Well, now you know.”
Typing ceased on both ends. Then I wrote: “Look, if you don’t want to talk to me anymore, I understand. I assumed that you knew. I wasn’t trying to hide anything.”
I clenched my lips, anticipating his response.
“I don’t care. I still want to meet you,” he wrote and I cried — not because I liked him or was even that attracted to him, but because I thought that I had a chance for social redemption. That maybe there’d be times a love interest wouldn’t poke around on the Internet, looking for my backstory. That the past was really just that, and that I might have a chance someday to have my hand held again, not by cuffs.
In his next message, he embedded a video of himself masturbating. I blocked him immediately. Then — just as quickly — I unblocked him, hoping he would reveal an excuse: Sorry, I was drunk. Or: I thought you would like that. I would have accepted either of those reasons to keep my hope of ever meeting someone who would not judge me. But nothing came for days.
“You went to school with this guy?” I messaged Aimee.
“No, I thought you knew him,” Aimee informed me.
“You were friends with him first.”
“Oh, then I don’t know how I got him.”
I messaged the other mutuals.
From Amanda, formerly incarcerated for larceny: “I just accepted him because Kristen did.”
From Kristen, formerly incarcerated for possession of narcotics with intent to sell: “I took him because Sara did.”
From Sara, formerly incarcerated for armed robbery: “I don’t know him. I saw that he was friends with some of my friends so I confirmed him. Stopped talking to him when he asked ‘Can I ask you for a favor?’ Blocked his a–.”
He had parlayed a connection with one inmate to collect a bevy of released offenders, each of whom he was messaging, trying to meet her, telling her how attractive she was. I finally heard from him the day we were scheduled to meet.
“We still on for noon?”
I blocked him again. A woman released two months after I was, asked me later: “Do you know this guy who poked me?” It was him. We put out a PIP warning — Predators Into Prisoners — our first APB for someone other than ourselves.
One of my old cellmates wrote: “He sent me a friend request, too.” My fellow former prisoners and I found more than 30 recently released women he had messaged on Facebook.
Some cunning and manipulative survival tactics we learned in prison. Released offenders are the biggest dupes. Walled off by shame and desperation for affection, we’re lifers in a kind of social prison. Some of my friends have boyfriends, but most of them were around before their girlfriends’ time in prison. Will the rest of us ever meet someone who is sincere yet doesn’t care about our records?
“Who’s down for ladies night out?”