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November 9, 2010

The Prison Whisperer

For wives of white-collar convicts, help is now at hand.

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the good wife

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Neira/CBS

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When Karen Weinreb's husband got busted for financial fraud in 2004, she felt like she'd "landed in a war zone without weapons," she says. As her husband joined the country's rapidly growing swarm of white-collar swindlers, Weinreb had to kiss the good life good-bye. The mansion got sold, the friends dumped her, the husband went to prison. Weinreb, a mother of three, filed for divorce and wrote a novel based on her life, The Summer Kitchen. When the book hit shelves, she found she was not alone: Scores of wives of white-collar felons began contacting her, desperately seeking advice. Suddenly Weinreb, busy working on a second novel, found herself moonlighting as a consultant. We checked in with the Connecticut-based author, whom we first profiled in Marie Claire last year, to discuss her new side job.

How did it feel to drop off your husband at prison, where he would be spending four years? I vividly remember watching him slowly driven off by a guard in a van into a dark other world. I was essentially watching my children become fatherless. My sense of helplessness for them was huge.

What's it like in the visiting room? Visiting rooms are nothing like what you see on TV programs such as The Good Wife. They're chaotic, crowded, noisy, overheated, and they smell like body odor, microwaveable food, and, if it's raining, clammy clothes. It's like a third-world airport when flights are canceled. It was astonishing to see these rooms become like living rooms for families of long-term inmates: Many inmates purchase tickets to pay for family portraits to be shot there on visits. Those smiles at the camera are the saddest smiles I have ever seen.

Is there a dress code for visitors? There are regulations, but many of the rules are discretionary. I had read that see-through clothing was prohibited and thought I was safe wearing a black turtleneck sweater. But a guard denied me entry because he believed he saw the outline of a bra strap. Another time, I was refused entry because my dress was deemed khaki — the color of prison uniforms — although I could've sworn my dress was olive. It was surreal. Every visit was Orwellian, in the respect that every move is under surveillance. Even during phone calls from home, an automated voice would interrupt every few minutes to remind me that I was on the phone to a federal prisoner, as if I wasn't aware of that.

What made you decide to be a consultant to other wives? Because I knew the territory, because they had children, and because I would have wanted someone to help me when I was going through the experience. By allowing my ordeal to be of use to them, these women also help me.

How many clients do you have, and how does the consulting business work? Dozens of women across the country have approached me so far. I e-mail, talk on the phone, meet with them. I often receive and respond to texts late at night, when the women are alone with their thoughts and fears. In July, I traveled with a woman and her husband to the prison where he will serve an eight-year sentence. She stumbled as she turned away. I literally had to hold her up.

What's the most important advice you give your clients? Many of these women are desperate to know how to support their children with the breadwinner gone. Most have been long absent from the workplace. I work through various career options with them, as well as suggest ways to reduce their expenses. One woman sought my help when her husband began asking her to send hundreds of dollars to him via Western Union to his prison commissary account every month, so he could buy groceries or make phone calls. “He is being so selfish,” she vented. I reminded her that she should not feel guilty about ensuring there was enough money to feed her children. Another time I received an urgent message from a woman about to visit her husband for the first time. She suddenly didn't want to see him, but felt she should take the children. I told her that it would not help the children if a visit to their father made her too stressed. I suggested she wait. She didn't make that trip.

You were surprised that your friends shunned you amid your husband's scandal. How do you help clients cope when that happens? Rejection by friends is unfortunately an inevitable part of this ordeal. What helped me when I stopped being invited to dinner parties and my children stopped being invited to play dates was to believe that I would find better friends. I advise women to leave behind untrue friends and to move forward with the perspective that they have this great opportunity to grow.

How are your clients coping with their job search? There is every kind of story. One woman told me how strange it was to go on job interviews wearing shoes that cost the better part of the first month's salary. Another, after losing multiple homes while her husband awaits sentencing for fraud, is working to start the first of what she hopes to be a chain of neighborhood delis. One woman lost her home and beach house and was forced to move with her five children into a tiny, 1,000 square-foot subsidized apartment, while balancing three jobs.

You ended up divorcing. Do you prepare your clients for that eventuality? These women are dealing with way too much in the moment to prepare for something that may or may not happen. I encourage them to take their ordeal day by day.

In your experience, do many marriages survive a prison sentence? I would say that most marriages do not survive. I urge women in this position to work on themselves and on developing a new life and community, and then the right man will come — as one has for me.

What kind of advice would you give Bernie Madoff's wife? I will say this about Mrs. Madoff: She's been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Only when you're thrown out of the nest can you learn how to fly and be fully alive.


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