Kathleen O'Shea, 'Women on the row: revelations from both sides of the bars'

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Review by Sarah Irving

It's hard to know what the objective of this book is. The title and blurb make it sound like a book on women on death row. Actually, it's Kathleen O'Shea's autobiography, interspersed at paragraph intervals with excerpts from interviews with ten other women, all ofthem on death row in the USA.

When this format works it is very powerful; often it is a harrowing reminder that the social and psychological forces which result in some women - innocent or guilty - ending up on death row are absolutely the same as those which touch the rest of us.

Only the most closed of minds, reading this book, could be left with any support for capital punishment, or even for many aspects of the non-capital punishment system. The radically humanising effects of the parallels drawn are in themselves a condemnation of the brutality inflicted on these women, both through the death penalty and through the humiliations and cruelty inflicted on them by the US prison and judicial system.

On the other hand, the parallel biography style is not always a success. At times the linkages it relies upon are clear and powerful; at others they can seem tenuous. They can interrupt the narrative of O'Shea's life - itself a troubling account of life within the Roman Catholic Church and its clash with her growing awareness of her lesbianism and of the world beyond the convent - without any obvious contribution to the point being made. At other times, O'Shea's more nebulous stories of her disquiet at aspects of her Catholic upbringing and earlier life can seem self-indulgent next to the histories of domestic violence, drug abuse, mental illness and judicial corruption given by the condemned women.

Unlike some of O'Shea's other work, this book is not a contribution to the academic literature on death row and gender, although some of the first-hand accounts would be of interest to that audience. It is more a personalised and anecdotal outline of some of the structural violence that affects women in Western society, and the many forms this can take.

Topics: Prison, Women
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