By Ariel Herman
It’s a typical overcast afternoon in downtown Seattle, and Candace Doyal is sorting through old letters that her mother sent from prison. She lets me read through the letters with her, mostly hand-written on legal pad, all with envelopes stamped “State Prison” in red. Doyal culled through them, stacking the letters in two piles, one of which will be considered for her debut photography and prose book, This Thing Is About to End, on addiction, prison, and family.
Her lips tighten and eyes mist over from time to time. Words like “disappointment” and “love” emerge as recurring themes. Each is full of promises, many are full of regrets. The letters were sent between 1984 and 2001 while her mother was serving some 15-20 separate prison terms, usually for drugs, sometimes fraud. The tone of the letters contain that deep yearning for her distant child. Exhausted, we return the letters to their reliquary storage box.
“I was pretty angry and bitter when she would get arrested,” Doyal explains to me from her back porch in West Seattle. She lights a cigarette and continues, “I didn’t really read the letters then. I didn’t take them to heart, because I was frustrated about the situation.”
Doyal, 33, is a photographer and storyteller, as well as part-time bartender, painter, and arborist. She has had a camera around her neck since she was 17. Her photography is a combination of staged scenes and portraiture. “[They’re] images from growing up that have been seared in my mind,” she points out as we thumb through work for the book. A woman sitting reflectively in a prison cell. A bleary-eyed junkie posing on a bed. On the back of the images are raw and plainly written prose that caption each photo like the lonesome wail of a dog barking in the distance. She is a fan of Bukowski, and like him, anyone can pick up her work and feel it.
Compiling this book has been cathartic for Doyal, and yet some childhood wounds still remain. “I’ve always been pretty much an open book,” she explains as she throws a Frisbee for her dog, Jack. “There’s nothing more important than the human connection. I’ve never held back from connecting with people on a deeper level, I can’t help it. On a selfish level, it’s cathartic, on a social level it’s about broadening my community – to open hearts and minds, and to have my heart and mind opened.”
Her book, due to be released by Chatwin in late spring of this year, is memoir with implicit commentary on the criminalization of addiction and of the need for prison reform in the United States. “We just get so stuck as a society, and as individuals… I watched [mom] struggle. I lost faith in people changing,” she pauses. “Then I worked for a non-profit that did post-release assistance work, and I watched people start over. They were given a new lease on life. It changed my world. I realized that I can have an impact.”
Programs like these are deeply impactful, and those who manage to get into them rarely suffer from recidivism. Doyal’s mother never went through such a program. As a result, she repeatedly returned to prison, leaving her daughter to be raised by her grandparents and surrounding community. Still, the letters arrived in her mailbox from her lonely, struggling mother.
Candace herself once served a week in jail. She was so ashamed that she didn’t call anyone to bail her out. It gave her a sense of what her mom went through. Doyal realized this wasn’t the life she wanted, and felt the experience provided perspective on how her mom must have felt, stuck behind bars with a daughter growing up outside in the world. “Mom must have had so many layers of guilt – it makes total sense why she went back to heroin over and over again. How do you move through that stuff? Especially when you’re doing it to yourself over and over again.”
Doyal’s experience being raised by addicted parents parallels a major topic in the American popular discourse, namely prison reform. Her mother’s perpetual recidivism caused serious problems for Candace. “The lack of stability fucked with me really bad. Because of the way I grew up, I learned to pay very close attention to my surroundings.” Her face softens then, remembering better times, “We went to tons of NA and AA meetings. Big biker dudes would throw me over their shoulder and carry me around. It was a very diverse,very honest, loving crowd. The message I always got was be your best for people, and help when you can – and if you’re gonna break the law, only break one at a time.” Laughing now, “You don’t speed and not wear your seatbelt.”
“No one could love me as much as my mother loved me,” Doyal tells me. Behind the words are both plain fact and a winning attitude
Throughout our interview, I keep seeing her dip into pools of painful emotions, then reach up and out beyond the shadowy canopy into sunlight. “It’s also about having faith – and I’m not talking about religion,” she smiles. Despite the almost complete absence of her mom, Doyal was bolstered by her community and bears the mark of the many gifts of generosity that have been the guiding stars of her life.
“I’ve been very fortunate with the people who were more evolved than me, emotionally and otherwise, who pulled me up, and really encouraged me when they didn’t need to.” She recounts, “…I had a surrogate, regular family – white picket fence, everyone brushed their teeth, went to school – all that. I did chores. And went to lots of therapy. From the time I turned 15, there was a progression of deaths. It occurred to me that Mom wasn’t gonna be around forever. So I got into therapy, because she was getting out soon and I wanted to have some sort of relationship with her that wasn’t pissed off and angry.”
In 2001, Doyal’s mother was released from prison for the last time. After years of letters, prison visits, and continual recidivism, Candace finally got to spend one-on-one time with her mother. She describes the time as cathartic and deeply rewarding. It went on for two months. “We experienced a lot in a short amount of time.” Then, her mom stopped answering calls.
When the calls remained unanswered, Candace went over to her mom’s trailer to check on her. Her car was in the driveway, and she could hear the phone ringing inside. Breaking into the trailer with a screwdriver, she immediately saw an arm dangling over the bed. Her mom had died of an unknown cause—the investigation is still “pending”. She was just 40; Candace was 19. This moment underscored a deep pain that has driven Candace to create work that addresses the many questions surrounding her mom, principally the nature of addiction, what society is doing about it, and what can we personally do about it.
Out on the back deck, Doyal lights another cigarette. She tells me she likes to write here, in the back yard, with Jack by her feet, smoking a cigarette and drinking thick coffee. Her favorite word is “perseverance.” Returning to the subject of her mother, she affirms, “There was nobody I wanted in my life more. She was my greatest gift and my greatest heartache. But also, when she died, there was this weight that was lifted. She wasn’t hurting me anymore.”
Despite the tumultuous subject material, her work is movingly optimistic and powerfully frank, best explained by a quote from one of Doyal’s favorite authors, Kahlil Gibran, “The deeper sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain.”
Doyal used this quote in post-interview correspondence and explained, “This is about embracing everything that life throws at you, for better or worse. It’s kind of about taking the judgment out of any given situation and letting the experience be the experience. It is about how experience, “good” or “bad,” breeds depth and a well-balanced, empathetic nature toward the world. Acceptance and growth and tolerance.”
Mitch Hedberg once joked that alcoholism was the one disease you could get yelled at for having—the same could be said for any addiction. Doyal’s work provides occasion for the viewer to think and feel about how families, and specifically children, are affected by the criminalization of addiction. Less than outright policy change, the work by its very nature can serve to inspire a timely and productive conversation about how we approach the treatment of addiction.