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Irene Zutell Headshot

Don't Judge. Imagine.

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I spent a lot of time interviewing ex-cons for my latest book, Miss Brenda and The Loveladies. These women -- former drug dealers, prostitutes, addicts and even an attempted murderers -- are people I would have run away from, if I had met them a few years earlier. Because Brenda Spahn didn't run away, these women's lives were changed. They have jobs and homes. They have reconnected with their families.

How did Brenda do it? It wasn't easy. Eventually she learned to look at the woman with different eyes. Here's an excerpt from Miss Brenda and the Loveladies, where Brenda offers a guide to changing your perspective, by imagining a life completely different from anything most of us have ever known.

Imagine if you could not remember any time in your life when you have been happy. Imagine if you've never been to a party or a restaurant or an amusement park or a beach. Your birthday would roll around, and no one would give you a present or bake you a cake or even say, 'happy birthday.' You didn't know about Christmas, or Easter or New Year's. You never learned how to ride a bike or swim or play catch. You didn't go to your prom or a dance or a school play or a football game.

You didn't graduate from anything.

There are no photographs chronicling the first time you crawled, walked, lost a tooth, went to school. You can't remember a time when anyone took a picture of you. It is like you never existed -- except for those mug shots.

Imagine if when you were born no one wanted you. There were no birth announcements. No pink or blue balloons. No celebrations. Maybe no one bothered to name you. You were never held or tucked in or rocked to sleep or read to before bed. No one gave you a bath or changed your dirty diaper. No one taught you how to brush your teeth. No one combed your hair. No one picked you up and hugged you when you cried. No one fed you when you were hungry. No one wondered if you went to school. When you came home, no one noticed. No one washed your clothes. No one cared that you wore the same pair of underwear for weeks.

Imagine if your parents didn't protect you from evil. They were drug addicts who left you alone for days -- dirty, cold, hungry and scared. They joked about putting drugs in your bottle so you'd fall asleep and leave them to their drugs. Or they left you with strangers who abused you. When you told them about this abuse, they didn't do anything to stop it. Actually, they didn't care about anything except their next fix. Imagine if when your parents ran out of drug money, they gave you to the drug dealers in exchange for dope. Your parents consented to your rape. You knew it didn't seem right, but they were your parents, so you thought it was normal. The only time you felt close to your parents was when they smoked crack with you or shot up with you. You weren't even a teenager. Family time was a crack pipe.

Imagine if living on the streets and turning tricks for money was a better alternative to staying home. Imagine if getting thrown in jail is something you knew would eventually happen to you, and when it does, you are not surprised. It is a rite of passage you expect. After all, everyone in your family has been to prison at one time or other. So have your friends. It is your normal. Your family vacations would be road trips to prison to visit parents or relatives. You feel like this is where you belong because you know of nothing else.

When you get released, you may miss it there. Prison is bad but so is the uncertainty of the street. You might test dirty on purpose just to go back and get away from the hell of the street, an abusive boyfriend, a murderous pimp, the unrelenting hunger. Sometimes prison seems like home. You have your family -- your state mama, your state sisters and state brothers. You have food and a place to sleep. You can get drugs there. You can survive.

You've seen these types of women. We all have. And if we're honest with ourselves, we didn't really think about how it came to this. I'd see them and look the other way or I'd run the other way. I never imagined what it was like to be them. Instead, I judged them.

Crackheads. Druggies. Whores. Pathetic. Worthless. Disgusting. A disgrace. Awful. Monsters. Evil.

They deserved to be where they were. They didn't deserve anything better. They didn't deserve a second chance.

After a few days living with these women, I realized most of them had never had a first chance. I realized I had to see them with my heart -- not my eyes. And so I imagined, to the best of my ability, the lives they had endured.

This is an excerpt from Miss Brenda and the Loveladies (WaterBrook Press) by Brenda Spahn and Irene Zutell.