Reviewed: Angela Williams, Snakes and Ladders, Affirm Press
Power is inflicted and fortified at every social rim, forcing an exhausting battle on those on the back foot. Some will get out. Others will get by. The fight will feel futile at times, with small triumphs along the way. Most will continue to rise each day, thrust among the systemic tide, putting one foot in front of the other.
Angela Williams’ memoir Snakes and Ladders is a vivid illustration of these axes of power. Her world is abruptly upended when she is jailed 14 years after she believed she had done her time. On an ordinary day—in the throes of having her life on track and her kid back in her care—she crosses the road when a postie hits her. She talks to the cops who call her not long afterwards.
It turns out that a series of errors means there is a long-held warrant in place and Williams still has months left on a historic sentence. Overnight she’s thrown back in jail, leaving her son under the temporary care of her housemate and boyfriend. She’s devastated, but while imprisoned she quietly writes what would later become her debut title.
This time around, Williams is older and has agency. She’s been doing the work; she has long kicked a heroin addiction and put herself through university with honours and a distinction average. She founded a roller derby league and cultivated a community. She’s stronger and this time she’s better able to intellectualise the prison environment.
‘I used to be a heroin addict, criminal and all-round not-nice girl,’ Williams writes. ‘I want to tell you what it’s like to have been clean off heroin for thirteen years, to have learned how to think, to have weaned myself off selling my snatch and started thinking about ways to start selling my brain, only to end up getting arrested and being put back behind bars.’
On the map of modern humanity, power serves as the polar opposite of agency, and it can quickly overshadow the latter. Williams understands the way power can manifest in noxious acts of torture in and outside incarceration. As a child she was subject to unimaginable abuse by a figure she should have been able to trust. Williams reveals just some of what she endured, including self-destructive behaviour, juxtaposing it with the power dynamics that fester in incarceration—a system pervaded by lazy operators who span the indifferent to the down-right pernicious. Prison is an institution entrenched with a deeply apathetic culture that from the top down hisses us and them: those in blue and those in green.
Williams’ memoir gives readers an intimate insight into the impact of hyper-surveillance, and how power plays orchestrated in the name of punishment by those at the ‘top’ affect the psyche. We are privy to manic breakdowns, the forging of solidarity, and the day-to-day emphasis on scrounging minimal comforts in between weekly buy-ups.
What’s most compelling are Williams’ reflections on more than a decade of claiming—perhaps for the first time—a sense of agency, only to have it snatched away on the other side of a completely different life. In her second stint in prison and just moments into induction, she’s offered methadone by a medical officer who claims it’ll help her sleep, even after she explains she’s been in successful recovery for 11 years.
Another screw calls the inductees ‘putrid cunts’, because he can. One screw uses sexual misconduct disguised as humour to throw her weight around during ‘routine’ strip searches, diminishing Williams’ remnants of dignity with enforced humiliation. Justice is an ambiguous notion on this side of the fence and the disproportionate skewing of power is overt.
Seemingly every touch point in the system is set up to break those navigating it. And then break them some more. The tension is evident in Williams’ account of two prisoners who feud through blood and tears over a portion of Rice Bubbles. Both women are pushed to despair, the cereal a symptom of their final tether.
On day five, Williams writes, ‘the prison has settled around me like a toxic silt. The petty power games of the system—the social worker and her camera order, the doctor’s methadone suggestion and the endless damned lights—have done their work. I’m broken. Lack of sleep and constant terror has worn me down to reflexes.’ If there is any fight left in her, she doesn’t know it yet.
Literary works with narratives centred on the ‘underdog’ too often carry the remnants of a middle-class twang. Williams’ working-class vernacular comes through effortlessly—it’s simply her voice, both natural and sharp. She is the real deal and has mastered her craft. Her prose is free of fluff and packed with wit and careful thought. ‘It is always when things are looking up that you’re most likely to fall down,’ she writes. In Snakes and Ladders this possibility is ever present. The narrative surrounding addiction has no middle or end—the risk, varying as it may be, hovers continually.
There is no shying away here from the confronting detail. It’s memoir that feels both honest and generous; carefully restrained at times, while devoid of glorification or didacticism. ‘I remember my first few involuntary detoxes, sitting in a shitty flat in Newtown, waiting for my boyfriend-cum-using-buddy to get home from his early morning shifts at the fish markets so we could go and score,’ she writes. ‘When the gear is flowing the life of a junkie is all sparkles and unicorns, but when it starts to run out things get very bleak, very quick.’
Conversations happen as cigarettes are rolled, ‘prison coffee’ is extended to one another, and units are tidied. There is simple intention in everything undertaken, and its documentation fosters a mindful current through the text, inviting readers into the now.
Kathy comes to find me about an hour after unlock. I’m sitting under a spindly gum tree that offers much less shade than the fig in the Mum Shirl Unit, watching birds swoop and spiral above the green barrels that top the external fence.
‘You wouldn’t fucking believe it,’ she declares, slumping down on the ground next to me. ‘Smoke?’ I say, taking out the pouch and starting to roll. ‘Wouldn’t believe what?’
Berrima Correctional Centre is pictured as a quiet ‘historical’ place; memories of Mulawa from Williams’ first stint in lock-up are terrifying. And a less tense few days at Emu Plains, an ex-dairy farm at the foot of the Blue Mountains, is portrayed as just like ‘home’, in spite of the circumstances. Williams’ archive, a diary she clearly draws from, is a source of rich imagery unique to the local unceded lands across the Southern Highlands and Sydney’s greater west.
Readers are privy to aspects of Williams’ upbringing, the beginning of a series of arguably common themes endured by those whose lives start out incredibly tough: substance abuse, disenfranchisement, chaos. Perhaps less commonplace is Williams’ level of resilience: she not only climbs the ladders against all odds and quietly transcends the threat of the serpentine, but goes beyond survival to more than surpass her life’s work. Here lies a gripping tale of the recultivating of one’s power by virtue of accountability and self-work, combined with a phenomenal ability to retell it through literature.
The book is a case study of how interpersonal stability is learned and achieved through a client–practitioner setting on the back of a life initially fraught with turbulence. For Williams, her therapist’s humility has been an instrumental continuance:
He sits across from me in small, safe rooms, lined with shelves filled with books whose spines I scan during the hard bits. Sometimes he crosses his legs and leans back in the chair, sometimes he sits forward with elbows on knees to really hear what I’m saying. I know something big is happening when he tears off the top sheet of his notepad to better align his scrawls. He wears suits and ties, the occasional tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows. He is the president of my fan club and tells me I’m the strongest and most courageous person he’s ever met.
This is a proven strategy in the clinical realm, where trust and stability are built over time between therapist and client, then ideally replicated through other interpersonal relationships. Williams does not spell them out; rather, they are interwoven in nuanced anecdotes paralleled by insights gathered and lessons learned. Such notions will likely resonate with those with faith in the practice of self-work and psychology done well.
To pity Williams would be to undermine her—she didn’t climb out of the trenches and over such heights to have her story contextualised in such a way. She did, however, find fight within her and at times commanded a greater level of respect from some of the shrewd figures in blue. ‘[S]tanding under the cameras I remove the last remaining cigarette from my underpants and the girls in the cell give me knowing smiles. I’m back into the groove, is what I read from them, I’ve got my con-con back on.’
At times, Snakes and Ladders risks becoming repetitious, though Williams avoids this by timely shifts to different life events that are woven into the central narrative. Her use of metaphor skirts a beautiful line between poetry and philosophy, free of grandiosity and pretentiousness. Readers are privy to her witty, discerning mind, showing how hyper-vigilance can manifest brilliantly when channelled into artistry and humour. Hers is a commendable ability to intuit and apply clinical strategies, to think herself ‘out of the tightest of spaces’, and to document a remarkable story with charm and aptitude. •
Laura La Rosa is a Melbourne-based writer, critic and post-graduate cultural studies student. A proud Darug woman, Laura writes about feminism, class and representation.