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December 7, 2023
"Love, then becomes a container, not for control or power over - but for the empowerment of the true self."
-- Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., (PSY22909), M.F.T.

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"Hell's Angels": The Transformative Journeys of Women Who Love Lifers and Death Row Inmates

by Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D., (PSY22909), M.F.T.

"I went in to help him and found me." - "Hell's Angel", C.C.

As a psychotherapist, the most unique population I have worked with are women who have, by hook or crook, become emotionally involved with and even married men in prison- "lifers" or death row inmates. I call these women "Hell's Angels."

My research flies in the face of stereotypes about the pathology of such relationships. Many prison relationships turn out to be positive - even transforming-for the women involved. These unorthodox relationships offered an opportunity to beg in the process of healing and self-discovery.
I traveled across the country to interview 26 women in depth. Most told me their inmate relationships encouraged them to become more than they ever thought they could be. For them, loving a "lifer" has been a corrective emotional experience.

Why would any woman reach out to "date" or marry a man in prison when he can give her so little; with whom she can never have what society would call a "normal" relationship?

How Women Meet Men in Prison
Every single day, using the Internet , personal ads, church correspondence programs, mutual friends, official capacity, and any number of other means of linking up, women meet men in prison and get themselves involved in relationships. There may be a quarter of a million women involved with male prisoners, a population which has reached 1.3 million.

Who Are These Women?
Jamie, 51, a licensed therapist and owner of her own parole advocacy business, became involved with an inmate when he approached her to help a fellow inmate. Cretia, 54, was introduced 10 a prisoner (now her second husband) by her son, who was himself in prison at the time. Ann, a high school principal, met her inmate husband while both attend ed a Ph.D. program. (He'd been given a "pass" to attend.) Eve, 53, a religious woman, met her "man inside" after answering a letter he wrote to her church pastor for information on meditation.

Seven Common Threads: The 26 Hell's Angels interviewed described early childhood environments with the following common elements:

Early Childhood Narcissistic Injury: The child's deepest emotional need is to be genuinely loved by the parents. For "Hell's Angels" a narcissistic wound resulted in a closing down 10 protect and hide the self. Such closing down provides the perfect fit with a man who responds to a similar wounding by violently lashing out.

Family Dynamics of Dominance/Submission: Chaotic and traumatic events in the lives of these women often stem from historical family patterns of dominance and emotional submission. Problems such as developmental deficits, feeling like an object, and helplessness are likely to develop. In families where mothers modeled "laying down and playing dead," daughters learned women are worthless in relationships.

Taking on the Family Caretaker/Nurturer Role: As a child, the "Hell's Angel" became a super-responsible caretaker. The role offered a sense of belonging, earned importance in the family, and was an unconscious, survival tool to address unmet dependency needs. In adult relationships. she then became emotionally submissive, a nurturing caretaker with no voice of her own.

Identification as a "Father's Daughter:" "Father's Daughter," refers to a girl who is unconsciously aligned with the values of the patriarchy and the masculine principle (Woodman, 1982). Achievement gains paternal approval while at the same time polarizes her against the mother (the feminine), and her own emotional side. Unconsciously, her feminine self is sacrificed to meet the father's emotional needs.

Emotional/lntellectual Split: The fragile and defenseless part of the self is protected by the women's over-intellectualized sense of identity. Intelligent and articulate, they survived their narcissistic injuries by becoming grounded in the cognitive, becoming academic stars or "golden girls," book-wise not streetwise.What they need and want is attachment and intimacy based on who they really are.

True Self/False Self Split: In the face of helplessness in relation to the external environment, the wounded psyche splits, repressing or cutting off the true self (Winnicott, 1965; Diamond, 1996) in favor of a controlled, masked, or false self acceptable to the parental environment. This tactic defends against the painful internal assault of chronic rejection and unmet dependency needs. The real self gels lost and the false self becomes her identity.

Involvement in Previous "Demon Lover" Relationships: Most of the 26 "Hell's Angels" interviewed had a history of "demon lover" (Woodman, 1982) relationships with men who devalued and objectified them, feeding off their perceived strength. The men's grandiose ways of relating masked the enormity of their true dependency. "Hell's Angels" were the glue that held the men together. The women's empathic attunement provided the perfect mirror for the manipulative, trickster quality of the "demon lover" in these men.

A Step Up & Transformation
"The part of me that got thrown away, got redeemed in this relationship." - 'Angel' Stephanie

For "Hell's Angels", transformation is about healing the early childhood narcissistic injury. "Hell's Angels" who previously went from one destructive relationship to another, found their prison inmate relationship "a step-up."

Historically, "Hell's Angels" "acted-in" in response to their narcissistic injury, while the male inmate "acted-out." Within the prison structure with its many strictures on contact and conduct-outbursts of passion, for instance, be they sexual or rageful , are prohibited-emotional intimacy and reciprocity can be learned with a "soul mate."

For "Hell's Angels", their prison love can offer a reparative experience. An empathic emotional environment may be created by the limitations of the prison environment. The couple talks together. sharing things they may have never before told anyone. With sexuality and the possiblity of "acting-out" on hold, genuine emotional intimacy may develop. With their prison partners listening attentively to them, the women may begin to work through their own unmet needs for nurturing and mirroring. The psychological self may awaken to the wounded, isolated, stigmatized parts, and begin to integrate those split-off pieces. After years of hiding pain, "Hell's Angel's" can now relinquish their facade and begin to feel.

Love, then becomes a container, not for control or power over - but for the empowerment of the true self.

I needed to be needed. Now, I just need to be loved." - "Hell's Angel" Lynn