Creativity as a Survival Tool
In prison Mark Olmsted wrote his way back to sobriety and sanity
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
With Orange Is the New Black as my best frame of reference, I asked writer Mark Olmsted what the show got right about life behind bars.
“Bad food and bad facilities, the producers got that right,” Olmsted said.
What doesn’t come through on the show is ongoing lack of food. “I got double portions because I was HIV-positive,” Olmsted told me. He was benefitting from a legacy policy from the time when there was AIDS wasting in the early years of the crisis. “But there’s real hidden hunger in prison.”
The road to prison, paved with meth
There’s a line in Olmsted’s book about his nine-and-a-half month stint in California corrections, Ink from the Pen, when he wonders what gay men were incarcerated for before crystal meth.
The fellow gay men Olmsted met behind bars were almost all doing time for the same thing. “Most gays I met in prison had the same experience as me, meth-related, self-medicated, knocked out in the eighties.”
Olmsted used meth through the nineties recreationally, and then increasingly, occupationally (aka, selling). Weekends became longer, the highs became lower, and the lows became more unbearable.
In 2004 Olmsted was close to quitting altogether when a new client turned out to be working for the West Hollywood sheriff’s department. “The guy was wearing a wire and entrapped me to get his own [drug] charges reduced,” he recalled.
Olmsted could have done the same to reduce or erase his sentence, but he refused to rat out his immediate supplier, a friend he called Larry the Wizened Okie. “Ironically, Larry was arrested soon after I was and I met him in jail.”
Olmsted explained that after using meth or any addicting drug for a while, the transition to dealer is pretty easy. “There’s that one friend who supplies. He introduces you to the dealer, you meet his connections, you become friends. He tells people to come to you.”
Plus, unlike some users, Olmsted had a “clean apartment.”
“I got high with my clients. I had sex with my clients. People had this fantasy of doing it with their dealer.” This social and sexual interaction had the added benefit of reducing the neighbors’ suspicions: too many strangers coming in and going right out raises eyebrows.
Just as I required a TV show to introduce me to prison life, I needed help understanding the appeal of meth and why it has a stranglehold on wide swaths of gay men.
Olmsted set me straight. “The appeal, at first, is the super-charged libido. You can have an eight-hour orgy with costume changes. I was known as a bondage top. I don’t want to glamorize it, but it was very intense sex.”
Olmsted’s journey from meth abuser to meth dealer to inmate—to, now, author—is anything but glamorous, and he said that over time meth works for nobody. “You suffer from the inability to feel pleasure after a while.”
In recounting his lost decades, Olmsted is neither sentimental nor dramatic. As we spoke in his apartment in Hollywood, he explained that meth gave him a sense of invincibility that led to taking risks, eschewing money management and flouting the law. Sell meth? Hey, it pays well. Use your dead brother’s credit cards? Of course. Olmsted did have a regular job, as an editor at Genre magazine, before being laid off (not for meth use). He was always one of the “high functioning” addicts, not the paranoid, face-picking kind.
Olmsted told me that his life on meth confused instant gratification with living in the moment. “I was the least paranoid drug dealer because I had lost my fear of death and consequences.”
That’s because he had fully expected to die of AIDS in the eighties.
Survivor, the new season
One of the longest long-term HIV survivors, Olmsted tested positive when the first HIV test came out, in 1988, but he knew he was positive before then. “I probably seroconverted around 1982 because that’s when I first started experiencing telltale symptoms.”
Year after year of watching friends get sick and die and waiting for his turn that never came was disorienting, so much so that he titled his Master’s thesis, which he completed after the prison stint, The Disorientation of Survival.
When Olmsted’s older brother Luke died of AIDS-related complications in 1991 at the age of thirty-four, it underscored the idea that he was living on borrowed time.
When antiretrovirals made his HIV undetectable, Olmsted’s live-for-today ethos became as outdated as shoulder pads.
Having a future returned to him was, as Olmsted wrote in the Huffington Post, “like starring in a play and finding out in the second act that they’ve added a third act, and you’re going to have to learn all the new lines during intermission.”
The idea of imminent death changes your conception of time, Olmsted told me. “The suspense of waiting to die was killing me. Prison was the closest thing to dying I’ve experienced.”
Writing away the pain
The way Olmsted dealt with his new fear of mortality was to write. From the first time he was allowed to have a pencil in prison, he wrote. He had to wait a week for the writing utensil because while he was in the L.A. Men’s Central Jail awaiting his final assignment, he was on suicide watch lock down.
He wasn’t actually suicidal. “My mistake. I thought the judge would be more sympathetic to me if I said I had thought about killing myself.” The judge wasn’t impressed, as it turned out.
The writing process started with letters—many, many letters—to family members. Three months in, his sister started typing them up and posting to a blog.
“Slowly I started writing with awareness that this was being read like a serial,” Olmsted said.
Getting clean from meth was a creativity booster, Olmsted recounts. “For years I was only able to write poetry because meth completely reduced my attention span.”
But it was his mother’s death in 2015 that jump-started the creative process.
“When she died I began writing from the ground up using all the material I had. It had been difficult to write when she was alive because I kept imagining her pain. Just the fact of my being in prison was enough pain.”
His mother never chastised him for his addiction and legal problems, though Olmsted wished she had. “I had to ask her to stop saying nice things. I needed a little punishment from her.”
Olmsted also wrote memory pieces about his childhood—a “fabulous childhood,” he tells me—to his mother to reassure her that he was all right. They made it into the book, leavening the prison anecdotes to make the book more of a true memoir.
Getting cozy with Jimmy and Thumper
Here’s a difference between the women’s prison depicted on Orange Is the New Black and the real world of men’s prisons: being open and gay for men is not cool. Trans inmates suffer even more abuse in men’s facilities. And men with HIV, well, they’re generally avoided for fear of “catching it.” The understanding of HIV among the inmate population isn’t as sophisticated as with, say, A&U readers, Olmsted quips.
Olmsted didn’t exert too much effort in hiding his orientation in prison. It was quietly acknowledged that he was “different.” He was middle-aged, urbane, and used SAT-type words liberally. You know, gay.
“[Inmates] respect honesty, even though it’s not safe to be out there,” Olmsted said.
But being gay is safer when you’re protected by a fast talking Romanian hit man named Thumper.
In Ink from the Pen, Olmsted recounts his uneasy, but ultimately life-saving, relationship with the “cute but scary” Romanian.
“Thumper thought I needed protecting and anyone watching would have thought he had a crush on me, but he was totally straight. In fact he didn’t know I was gay, or at least it wasn’t articulated.”
Thumper, who once promised to take Olmsted to Argentina for reasons he never quite understood, was later revealed to be as scary as Olmsted first thought.
“I Googled Thumper recently and learned he murdered an older gay man in Palm Springs two years ago and he’s doing life now.”
Olmsted also had help navigating the landmines of prison from Jimmy, the head of the Whites. That’s really what he was called: another thing Orange Is the New Black gets right is the strict racial self-segregation behind bars.
“With Jimmy looking after me, I didn’t have to worry about safety anymore. I could almost conduct research.”
Ink from the Pen is populated with characters from three facilities. Olmsted told me it was important to humanize men who were very unlike him in temperament and background. In the decade-plus since he said goodbye to all that, Olmsted has become actually sympathetic to the plight of the incarcerated and has become involved in a prisoners’ rights organization.
And no, Olmsted never had sex with any of the men behind bars. He knew you were wondering that.
Olmsted doesn’t go so far as to say incarceration was a gift or a blessing. But he acknowledges it was essential in his climb back to sobriety and stability. And with the success of his first book he’s working on the next one.
“Creativity, for me, has been a survival tool.”
For more information about Mark Olmsted’s memoir, log on to: www.lavenderisthenewblack.com.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.