Constance Debré on dirty freedoms

For Document’s Fall/Winter 2023 issue, the novelist muses on love and power across the prison window’s glass

He’s wearing a sleeveless black sweatshirt. His arms are naked except for a tattoo on his left forearm. If you look closely, like me, you can see that it says Nicole inside of a heart. He has a mustache and his hair is strangely parted down the middle. He holds two telephones: one in each hand—right fist to right ear, left fist to left ear. Black phones, real phones, heavy phones, their twisted wires crossing over his chest. With arms bent and knees on the table, he’s seated. He’s tilted over the phones, leaning forward and looking through the glass that separates him from the free world, the living world, the world of the living. He’s apart and he’s about to die. This goes with some protocols. Let me call it pomp. When restraining your freedom, they always say it’s for your own good—whether they call it security or love. Security is superficial. What is at stake is power. Here, with the glass and the phones for talking to the people on the other side of the glass, are the stigmas, the signs of the infamous, and the power to declare who is and who is not; what is and what is not. What is at stake here, in this glass between an inmate and their visitors, is the line—parting the pure from the impure, the saints from the villains.

Through the phones, they can speak, voices in the air, but there is an absolute prohibition on bodies. Whether it’s a parent, a child, a friend, or a girlfriend, once on the other side of the glass, you cannot touch or be touched. Security, again, is superficial. Underneath is the purity of the good guys, to be preserved from the fluids of the villains. Without villains, the good guys would not be good anymore. There would be panic, confusion, and chaos. You have to make them believe they are the good guys. That’s what the villains are for. The good guys bend completely under authority. They comply. We all do, don’t we? We’re not brave enough not to, probably, and what for?

“Freedom consists of reversing the signs, declaring stigma privileges, and making the punishments ceremonial. The beggars, the king, and vice versa. The extremes and opposed positions are connected.”

He’s looking at the other side of the glass, at us, or at the person taking the photo. Maybe she’s one of the two people he’s talking to on the phone. She’s a journalist from Deseret News, a newspaper based in Salt Lake City and owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I forgot to tell you the Where and When. And part of the What. We are in Utah, land of the Mormons. It is 1976, and it’s been almost 10 years since a man was last executed in the United States. Right after the short period of American history where death penalty laws were unconstitutional. He’s become a star. He’s 36 years old. He’s on death row at Draper Prison. He’s used to prison. He’s spent most of his life in detention, jail, and other reformatory institutions. He was released from jail in April. He killed two people in July, was condemned in October, and will be shot in January. He asked for it. He waived his right to appeal and opposed all stays and legal action people took against this execution. All those people who wanted him not to die, who wanted to get his sentence commuted to life without parole. He’s famous now, and people are coming from Hollywood, New York, and all over the country and world to see what’s going to happen. It’s America and it’s a good story.

Maybe you remember his name—Gary Gilmore. Maybe you remember Norman Mailer’s book. Or Joan Didion writing about Mailer’s book. Maybe you remember the movie with Tommy Lee Jones. Maybe you just remember Gilmore. Maybe you don’t. Gilmore won. They put a black hood on his head and shot him in the heart. Utah’s way of execution at the time was the firing squad. It still is, by the way, an alternative to lethal injection since the passing of a new law. Gilmore gave his eyes. Organ donations from people who are executed are not allowed anymore.

I went to this squat outside of Paris in Romainville to get Gary Gilmore and his two telephones tattooed on my shoulder. Tattoos do not mean anything and are rather ugly, but are something you can do with yourself. I like the idea of having my body dirtied before it goes to the trash. Let’s say, I won’t let it die before getting it really dirty. It sounds like a plan, and it matches the sport and the shaved head. Personal aesthetic. Getting old like this.

Constance Debré wears coat by WE11DONE.

They used to make spare car parts here. I guess they closed the factory in the ’90s when they stopped making cars in France. It has been a squat for almost two years. There are dogs in the courtyard, and there are people around, either working as artists or just living. Young and not so young. A man I met on Instagram is going to tattoo me. He’s having a spliff first. Did you know weed is illegal here? French stiffness. But alcohol and pills are allowed. The line. It seems like everyone around me these days drinks too much. I see them count the three glasses they allow themselves on sober nights. And not counting on other nights. You begin to see it on their faces—the ones who don’t have money and good doctors to fix it—the fatigue. It’s like a cavity in them. You can see it in their eyes and in their shoulders. The kind of people who attract me.

I don’t get along with other sobers like me. Her smell. The smell of her which is the most hers to me is the one she has at night, in the middle of the night, when she sleeps and I don’t, or when I sleep and she pops up at my place. It’s a mix of perfume and alcohol seeping from her skin, hours after she drank wine. Sometimes there is a very light smell of cigarettes. It seems to me that I see her completely in those moments. I see her from the other bank. I don’t tell her. I don’t think you can tell people about themselves or about love; this is just for yourself. And every day comes the clean version of her, which smells of English soap and bath and luxury creams, and is soft as a man’s old silk shirt (is that okay?) with an unknown monogram. And every night—or maybe not every night, but often—comes the dirty one. Despair and absolute faith travel through both of these versions of her. I cannot resist when she comes in the morning to get me back, usually after a night of texts explaining to me how miserable I am. With puffy eyes and a hangover, she looks just like a scrawling dog with low ears. I can’t resist her dog face in the morning. It’s better we don’t cross paths. We carefully avoid doing so.

The man drawing Gary Gilmore on my shoulder is thirtysomething. Looks younger. Skinny, hair dyed, and tattooed. There are 20 or so people in the squat. Working here or elsewhere or not working. And living—doing stuff like collecting food for free at Rungis market in their trucks every Monday, keeping half of it for themselves, and distributing the rest to people in need. Hosting people with no home. Like the guy working for the city at the cemetery, burying people. The city can’t help with housing. They’re worried about a hearing regarding a removal order they appealed. They have a lawyer. They say she’s a good one. They’re going to be expelled, they just don’t know when. Maybe in several weeks, maybe later. After the winter, they hope. That’s life when you live in squats. The Hangar is the name. I don’t know if there are still places like this. Not so many I believe—at least not in Paris. The tattoo session takes the afternoon. We talk and sometimes we don’t. It’s very calming to get tattooed. The toilets have no seats and there are squat toilets with holes in the floor. Like in the cafés in Paris when I was a child. I take a photo of myself pissing. I wish I had put my hand between your legs as you were pissing.

What do we do with ourselves? The organs and the rest.

“What can you do? Before the next plot? The next book? The next trip? The next city? The next adventure? The next crime? The next shot? The next hit?”

Shirt and jacket by Dior Men. Jewelry (worn throughout) talent’s own.

Freedom is a tiny little thing, a toy that’s given to you for five minutes a day, and maybe on weekends—to get drunk on Saturday, be hungover on Sunday, and go back to work on Monday. A coffee break. Even in the Wild Wild West. But we all know that, don’t we? We’ve known it since childhood. We know how things work and we know the things they say are lies. Every lie shouldn’t make us move a muscle. Any rebellion would be part of the frame. Would make the noose tighter. Freedom has been lost, or rather, has never existed.

That’s not what matters. That’s not what’s at stake. The only question for him, at this moment, or for us, at any time, any day of our lives, is the same. That’s probably what he, the man who is about to die, understands perfectly. His genius, yes, genius, is to understand that there is still something that matters. What remains at stake for him is not his life, but the form of his death. What he understands is that freedom consists of reversing the signs, declaring stigma privileges, and making the punishments ceremonial. The beggars, the king, and vice versa. The extremes and opposed positions are connected. Because the extremes are boundaries, they are clear shapes, whereas the middle is shapeless. But Gary Gilmore’s going to die. That’s his cause and end. That’s what makes him so special, what elevates him above all. And what makes him nothing at the same time.

The tattoo on my shoulder is strange. Not beautiful. Couldn’t be. Was not meant to be. Awkward.

What can you do in July? When you’re waiting for August to work on the book. When you’re waiting for autumn to leave Paris and disappear again. When it’s been an on-and-off dance with you for so long. When I begin to get tired of it, and you do too probably, and when I begin to think that we’re done with each other—equally exhausted. Waiting for August, trying to work even though I know the real work will begin when I’m alone in Paris with no more jail, no more papers to write, and no more girlfriend or ex-girlfriend. Nobody but the empty streets, the closed shops and the closed cafés, and the empty swimming pools. The only time of the year when I like Paris. What can you do? Before the next plot? The next book? The next trip? The next city? The next adventure? The next crime? The next shot? The next hit?

Jacket and trousers by Balenciaga. Boots by 13 09 SR.

Take the RER from Gare du Nord toward Corbeilles Essonnes, stop at Juvisy, then take the DM50, which goes to the detention center of Fleury Merogis. The first stop is at the men’s detention facility, the main one. The other one is the women’s—it’s much smaller. I used to get there by car, when I was a lawyer. It was a Peugeot. I still have a Peugeot, but it’s another one and it’s not in Paris, because the car is too old and Paris is too expensive. There is only one DM50 per hour and I usually miss it. So I take the DM5, which leaves me close but not within. The prison is a city in a city, and the women’s facility is on the other side of it. It takes 30 minutes of walking, and it’s July and it’s hot and I’m tired. I walk through the prison with the wire fences, the watchtowers, the concrete, the parking lots, and the soccer field nobody uses—they never cut the grass, which is high now. At the gate. Bonjour, Monsieur. Put forward my ID, get authorization, leave my phone in a lock, and then push the heavy doors—how many?—and the noise of them, bip bip, each time, however many times.

And then, the women. The alpha females, as they call themselves. It’s supposed to be a creative writing workshop, and it is. They do write, but most of the time we talk. I used to be a criminal lawyer and because I am not anymore, we can talk directly and frankly about what’s going on here, about what’s happening to them and to the prison. And they tell me things they cannot tell their families, if they have any, nor their lawyer, who is not paid for that. We often stay longer than scheduled and the woman officer in charge is nice. Then, back to Paris on the bus and on the dirty train.

It’s late when I am back home. Or should I say back to the apartment I’m subletting? I’m tired of that too, and I feel empty after these days. I do nothing else these days. And I am waiting for August to write. We won’t cross paths, you and me. You won’t be around. You’ll go to Wyoming, Ibiza, Greece. You like holidays, but I don’t. And I am waiting for September to leave.

Stylist Assistant Ruairi Horan.