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Nonfiction in Brief

"THEY ALWAYS CALL US LADIES" : Stories from Prison by Jean Harris (Scribner's: $18.95)

September 11, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Jean Harris has been locked up in New York's Bedford Hills Correctional Facility since 1981, a year after she was convicted of killing cardiologist Herman Tarnower, the author of "The Scarsdale Diet" book and her lover of 15 years. She emerges from these stories as a sane, gracious and compassionate woman who looks with sadness upon a prison whose injustices seem to rival those of its inmates. Initially, it's hard to sympathize with Harris: When she complains about the run-down floor in the prison chapel, for instance, one is moved to remind her that prison is not a country club.

Harris' stories are compelling, though, for they are apparently lucid, often provocative and never self-pitying, painting a picture of a "correctional" facility which seems to reward only cynical resignation. One "emotional, naive young woman," for instance, concerned that the woman in the cell next to hers was dying with an advanced case of AIDS, wrote a letter about the situation and sent copies to her friends and the media. She was confined in solitary for 60 days for writing "properganda material."

Although Harris is undeniably moved by the suffering that surrounds her ("Caring takes a heavy toll in here," she writes, "there's so much to care about"), she never internalizes her environment, as Jack Henry Abbott did in "In the Belly of the Beast." This book, in fact, seems to be Harris' way of avoiding her own predicament. She is the empathic counselor, chronicling the plight of prisoners, the disciplined scholar, creating an absorbing social history of women in prison, but never the prisoner, incarcerated for crime. Significantly, Tarnower's name doesn't appear in these pages.

Still, Harris does admit that she did "something wrong" and her empathy for other prisoners appears to be genuine. In one scene, for instance, she observes Rosie cradling her cell-mate Connie, who has just suffered through a grand mal epileptic seizure: "It is a sight too sad to see," Harris writes. "It is a sight too beautiful to miss. It is Mary and Child on a prison cell floor. There are no lambs today, only cockroaches to play the role."

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