Redeemable: A Memoir Of Darkness And Hope
Author: Erwin James
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus, nonfiction
This review won’t mention any spoilers. The jacket of Redeemable: A Memoir Of Darkness And Hope already tells you that this is the memoir of a man sentenced to life in Britain in 1984 for two murders.
As the title suggests and the jacket confirms, it’s also about how prison psychologist Joan Branton helped him to “turn his life around, showing no matter how far a person falls, redemption is possible with the right kind of help”.
Erwin James (his first name and middle name) was the byline the author used when he started writing a column, “A Life Inside”, for The Guardian newspaper while he was in prison in Britain.
You’ll find most of this information on the jacket. But what you won’t find between the covers is his full account of the killings and what he felt and thought at the time.
James writes just one sentence about it (“Three months later our robberies and muggings had left two people dead”) and reproduces a newspaper clipping on his sentencing.
And if you were hoping for an in-depth look at how the psychologist worked with him, you may also be disappointed. His sessions with her are interspersed over fewer than 30 pages.
The majority of the book – about 180 pages – covers the childhood, teens and young adult years of “a damaged little boy who became a fatally damaging man”. James writes simply, without making excuses for himself.
His mother died when he was seven. His father turned to alcohol, moving in with one woman after another, each of whom he abused. At least one of the women also beat James.
The boy started out stealing bicycles and from the bakery and pubs. At the age of 10, he was given three years’ probation for burglary.
“Sometimes it felt like there were two mes – the one everyone could see and a secretly angry me that lived inside my head and which for the most part I kept to myself,” he writes. “I wanted to be good and kind and helpful and make people around me smile and laugh like before. But it was a desire that conflicted with the furtive part of me that told lies, stole and trusted nobody.”
When he broke into a bowling alley, he was put into “care” at a children’s home. He left the home, and school, at the age of 15.
From then on, James drifted from one home to another, staying with girlfriends, friends and relatives and not staying in any job for long. He drank heavily, got into fights and was involved in “smash-and-grabs”. Faced with a crisis, he would run away, steal a car and move on to his next destination.
Since there seemed to be a general pattern that was repeated over the years, this section could have been edited down and summarised, giving a few examples. More time could have been spent on the murders, which were a turning point in his life, and on how Branton (to whom the book is dedicated) reviewed his past, discussed his choices and encouraged him.
But in Redeemable, James does write about his time with the Foreign Legion in France, where he fled after the murders in 1982. He describes the brutal discipline in detail.
“The structured routine and philosophy of reward for effort brought something out in me that I never knew was there,” he says. “The powerful sense of family among our ranks meant that for the first time in my life I felt that I had found somewhere I belonged.”
James stresses that when he heard he was wanted for murder, he went to great lengths to hand himself in to the police in France. Although he guessed that the Legion would refuse to hand him over if he claimed sanctuary, he says, “my conscience had driven me half mad already….”
Later on, he writes, a young prison officer helped him to see that his choice to return “had to mean there was something about me that might be salvageable”.
James also offers a rare, frank picture of life in prisons in France and Britain, and his survival strategies. These included using tranquillisers when he had to go in the witness box during his trial, and a change of religion to boost his diet.
A fellow prisoner at Wandsworth had told him he should register as a Mormon so that he would get cocoa instead of the foul evening tea which they nicknamed “diesel”, and should join the Vegan Society so that he would get fresh greens. “A couple of weeks after that conversation I was officially a vegan and a Mormon,” he writes.
But when James was transferred to Wakefield, his first long-term high-security prison, he says, he wanted to make a fresh start and told the truth about these “dodges”.
In their sessions, the psychologist Branton told him nobody was born bad and even in prison, he still had choices to make.
James chose to take advantage of the education department and library at Wakefield, going on to earn a degree in history. He was released in 2004 and now works as a freelance writer. He is a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and a patron of several offender rehabilitation charities, and continues to speak and write about prison issues in Britain.