Going to prison was one of the best things that ever happened to Pat MacEnulty.
By the late 1970s, when she and some friends were arrested for breaking into a pharmacy to steal drugs, MacEnulty had been aching for a big change. A smart young woman from a creative family, she had grown weary of the dangerous, drug-centered subculture she'd coasted into five or six years earlier and now found hard to leave. Prison wasn't exactly the kind of change MacEnulty had in mind, but by the time she was released 17 months later, she had turned her life around 180 degrees.
Earlier this year, Dr. Pat MacEnulty, wearing a stylish outfit offset by short purple boots, steps onto the Story Slam stage to read from her work. She's the author of five novels, several children's plays, numerous essays and an upcoming memoir. Her reading style is lively, almost theatrical, a raised hand or a lifted eyebrow punctuating her straightforward, nearly journalistic style with dashes of emotion and emphasis. When she reads an excerpt from her first novel, Sweet Fire, in which an argument rages among young drug addicts, the audience is rapt, silent. MacEnulty teaches at Johnson & Wales University, leads writing workshops, enjoys publishers on two continents, has her own website, and is every bit the confident professional. So how did druggie/felon Pat MacEnulty become respected author Pat MacEnulty, holding audiences' attention with her clear, rich prose? That's what this story is about.
MacEnulty grew up in 1960s Jacksonville, Fla., as part of an artistically inclined, New England-formed family -- a background that gradually gave her a detached view of the city and its Southern ways, as if she were in it but also standing apart. Her mother, a highly talented composer, musician and director, was married to a jazz pianist.
"They had a horrible marriage," MacEnulty says, "and he left when I was 3. Then, when I was 5 or 6, my older brothers -- my two big heroes -- left the nest." She missed her brothers terribly, but her mother, whose responsibilities included being musical director for Jacksonville's community theater, took her to rehearsals, where, she says, "I learned to entertain myself. I read books, I thought up stories, I had my own little imaginary world going, I got to play in the costumes ... I think a lot of writers are alone for long stretches of their childhood, and that's where they start developing their imaginations."
When Pat was in second grade, a man broke into their home and assaulted her mother. Soon, mother and daughter moved to a more secure neighborhood, but the school there was stifling and "felt like a prison." Before long, "I was an angry little kid. I started acting out in the sixth grade, and didn't stop till I was about 24," MacEnulty recounts, laughing. Such elementary school "acting out" as shoplifting and serial cursing eventually turned into ninth grade pot smoking and acid taking. Her mother remarried, to a man Pat couldn't abide, so in the early '70s, she moved to St. Louis to live for a year with her political activist brother and his wife, an opera singer.
"I learned a lot, so that was overall a good year in my life," says MacEnulty, who based much of her most recent novel, Picara, on her experiences during that year.
She moved back to Jacksonville and high school, "and that's when everything went down," she explains. "It wasn't a bad school, but I had too many self-esteem issues and it all hit at once: sexuality, drugs ... All the cool kids were into drugs, and I had to be the coolest and outdo everyone else -- I had to be an overachiever, I guess [chuckles]. I was doing really well in high school, I made the National Honor Society, but I was already looking down the barrel of a gun."
She got into hard drugs, then, after high school, went to college, off and on, for four or five years, doing well one semester and then flunking the next. At the same time, she got involved with groups of fellow hard drug users, and moved with them around the country; once, at age 19, she helped smuggle heroin from Mexico.
"I was part of that whole drug-centered subculture, moved around to Miami, to New York, and then back to Jacksonville," MacEnulty explains. "I'd see my mother occasionally, but it was hard on her to see what was happening with me. I tried a couple of drug programs during that time, but they weren't effective, and I was never off drugs for long."
She and her friends started breaking into drug stores to swipe drugs, and finally she was busted. Later, those years would form the basis of Sweet Fire. "All of those people," MacEnulty says today, "either died or went to prison for a long time.
"At the time [of the arrest], I was really ready to change -- the way I was living wasn't fun, I didn't like the person I was, but I realized that maybe I could become someone that I liked." It was if she'd been waiting for someone to temporarily set her aside, so she could get her act together. And so, as she headed to prison in her early 20s, Pat decided she was going to become a different kind of person.
Prison life offered MacEnulty college courses, as well as the chance to explore a dream she'd had since age 12: to be a writer. She had been writing off and on during the drug years, and once in prison, she dove into the craft headfirst. "I also got involved in some self-help things, positive thinking, and helping other people," she relates, "and oddly enough, I got some respect there -- for once, I was actually a kind of role model rather than just following along. So that's where I started being who I really am ... I learned that if you took the energy you used to get drugs and applied it to something positive, it made all the difference in life. Even today, I'll think about taking that energy and that ability to obsess about something, and use it constructively, just go for it." She smiles and continues, "That's probably why I've churned out six books, 'cause I'm kind of an obsessive about it."
While in prison, she also had a deep spiritual experience while she and fellow inmates attended services at an African-American church. "I realized there's something greater than just this frightened, angry little ego of mine -- there's something greater and much more beautiful and something of it is inside me. It may not always be accessible, but just knowing that it's there changes everything. And that's been a basis of how I see things since then."
Once out of prison, MacEnulty completed her B.A. work at the University of Florida, where she learned much from one of her teachers, the writer Harry Crews. The legendary Southern author, whose gritty books pull no punches in their evocation of real life in all its joy and pain, encouraged Pat to use her hard experiences in her art. After getting her B.A., she moved to Miami, and wrote for television, which is where she met her future husband, a video engineer. Still wanting to pursue the literary life, she moved to Tallahassee and got her masters degree from Florida State, after which she headed to Ft. Lauderdale, where she worked for the Sun-Sentinel for a couple of years. She got pregnant in 1990, "and moved back to Tallahassee to get my doctorate, because that seemed a better fit for motherhood than freelancing. My husband joined me there and we went on to raise our child." It took almost five years to get the doctorate while being a mom and writing short stories. During that period, she began working on Sweet Fire, taking Harry Crews' advice to use her own history and experience to populate her novel.
After being turned down by American publishers, Sweet Fire found fans in the British publishing industry, and the tale of 19-year-old junkie Trish, who "fell in love with heroin, which had made life both easier and harder," was published by Serpent's Tail in London. Reviews in the U.K. were terrific. MacEnulty was compared to authors Lorrie Moore or Jane Hamilton, and critics marveled that she could create a likeable, engaging character who is also a drug addict, and lace the story with intelligence and humor.
Intelligence and humor are key elements in MacEnulty's fiction, from Sweet Fire to her current novel, Picara. They sharpen the impact of her straightforward, often cinematic style, and allow for quick, piercing pictures of complex situations and emotions. In some ways, too, Harry Crews is still at work, particularly in the way MacEnulty tackles hard, tricky situations head-on with smarts and humor -- as well as in her knack for bringing "ordinary people" to full, three-dimensional life, making them as interesting as most ordinary people really are once you get to know them.
In many ways, MacEnulty's own experiences are reflected in her view of writing itself. "I believe writing can be transformative," she says. "You can take experiences -- your own or someone else's -- and by writing about them in an artistic way, turn them into art, and make them something better, or something healing, or transformative; and that can work for both the writer and the reader ... I know that after reading some books, I've been changed inside, I've gotten a greater awareness out of them. I think that's what I'm trying to do, trying to open things in myself by writing, and I hope that happens to readers."
MacEnulty's story epitomizes, and puts a human face on, some of America's favorite adages: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, trust in what you do best, find satisfaction in your work, make lemonade out of lemons. You could almost see her as an all-American success story a la Horatio Alger, except that folks who think in terms of "all-American success stories" usually aren't thinking of former heroin addicts. Obviously, that's something they need to rethink.
Pat MacEnulty’s books
Sweet Fire, 2002. Trish spends her time hustling to score heroin, dilaudids, whatever she can get. She travels from Florida to California and Mexico, hustling all the way, and always in the company of the wrong kind of men. As her life spirals out of control and from one man to another, we discover there’s more to her addiction than the drugs.
The Language of Sharks, 2004. A collection of short stories about girls eager to discard their innocence, and women yearning to regain it. From a Miami hooker to a suburban housewife, MacEnulty’s characters all search for meaning in their troubled lives.
Time To Say Goodbye, 2006. A literary noir mystery about a suburban wife and mother with a deadly past, and the detective who is determined to find out the truth about a series of murders.
From May to December, 2007. The lives of four women converge in prison, as they join forces to put on a grant-funded drama production. Despite their remarkably divergent histories, these women come together in unexpected ways, each beginning to confront and forgive her own past.
Picara, 2009. A 14-year-old girl, Eli Burnes, in the early 1970s, takes her life by the horns when her living situation implodes. She winds up staying with her father, a disc jockey and anti-war activist who has his own, new family.