Razor Wire Wilderness by Stephanie Dickinson

Review by Walter Cummins

While the incarceration of Krystal Riordan dominates the pages of Razor Wire Wilderness—along with the ongoing miseries of her life since the day she was born—the book places her story in the context of three other women who made disastrous decisions on a single evening when they were age eighteen and twenty, one even at fourteen.

Kyrstal’s action—or failure to act when Jennifer Moore was being violated—at twenty brought her a thirty-year prison sentence. Jennifer Moore, who chose a night of drunken partying in Manhattan at eighteen, ended up kidnapped, raped, and murdered, the suitcase carrying her mutilated body dumped in the Hudson River, the same waterway she had just crossed hours before from her home in suburban New Jersey to party in the city. The fourteen-year-old, Lucy Weems, a prison friend of Krystal’s, was seduced by an uncle who paid eight hundred dollars for her virginity, the same man who, after Lucy was graduated from college with an accounting degree, introduced her to a madam and a life of drugs and prostitution. Her desperate addiction led to the crime of kidnapping her pimp that resulted in her imprisonment.

The final young woman, also eighteen when her life changed, was the author, hitchhiking to meet a boyfriend for a party in Raleigh, North Carolina, and ending up the victim of a shotgun blast, her left arm forever paralyzed. Although the razor wire of the title symbolizes prison confinement, the totality of the book reveals the trap of figurative razor wire, a twisted barrier these women cannot escape.

Jennifer confronted her razor wire for only a few horrifying hours. Stephanie—while she has gone on to a career as an award-winning author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—has spent decades maneuvering with only one functioning arm and writing about the sufferings of others. Krystal and Lucy endure years of brutal imprisonment. While Stephanie’s suffering has been the result of a blunder that harmed only herself, it also has given her the perspective to identify with the failures of Krystal and Lucy, the realization that the victim has the potential of being a victimizer, that once someone opens herself—or himself—to danger, the consequences may be open-ended.

The book also ponders the question of punishment, what a person deserves for participation in a horrible crime. The abuses of Krystal’s imprisonment in New Jersey’s Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women are ongoing, day after day of denials and rejections, constant indignations, bursts of violence. Is that a just penalty for Krystal’s’s role in her pimp-lover’s violation and murder of a young woman who made the mistake of getting drunk? Is Krystal just a one-dimensional monster?

Dickinson certainly humanizes Krystal in the book’s depiction of her need for companionship and the simple pleasures of food and even decorative glitter, her visions of freedom on horseback. But beyond a craving for relief, Krystal’s life has been one of constant victimization. As a baby and toddler, she lived in filth with an addict mother, endured ongoing abuse by an uncle. Even adopted by a caring couple and revealing attractiveness and athletic potential, at age fourteen she lost that future after being sexually manipulated by two teenage boys. As a result, she was sent to what was later revealed as a notorious abusive home for wayward children, Élan boarding school. Krystal says that the place was much worse than prison. Beaten down at Élan, she ended up as a prostitute in Manhattan, the psychological captive of Dray, her pimp and father of two children he made her give up. And, finally, she served as Dray’s accomplice in the kidnapping, rape, murder, and body disposal of Jennifer Moore. She certainly did nothing to stop him. Was she mesmerized, frightened, complicit?

Can Krystal Riordan’s history from birth to age twenty be considered an extenuating circumstance? How much must she pay for her role in a heinous crime? Has she given up her right to freedom and any degree of personal fulfillment? For how long does she deserve to suffer in the trap of institutionalized razor wire?

In the final chapters of the book, Lucy Weems has been paroled, meeting a man who loves and marries her, settling into a house surrounded by a family. Those still locked in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women are confronted with Covid-19 in the midst of an infected staff and limited medical facilities, several even dying from the virus.

Stephanie Dickinson’s portrayal, her unearthing of the touch of Krystal in all of us, denies us easy answers to questions of guilt and punishment. Because Jennifer Moore lost all hope of a life ahead, how much must Krystal Riordan suffer for her actions of that one night? She will be released eventually, having served her official sentence. What kind of future will she face? Can she ever escape the razor wire of the person she has been?