Boalt lecturer’s first novel blends maternal fears with a hard-nosed view of America’s drug war
Ayelet Waldman tackles a ‘very Bay Area story’ in Daughter’s Keeper
| 29 October 2003
During Ayelet Waldman’s three years as a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles, the majority of people she represented were charged with drug-related crimes. “They were really good people who were terribly victimized by everything — their families, the system,” says Waldman, who has been an adjunct lecturer at the Boalt Hall School of Law since 1997.
A decade later, Waldman has written a novel with the drug war at its center. Daughter’s Keeper is a significant departure from her three previous books, all part of a series called the “Mommy Track Mysteries.”
At Boalt Hall, Waldman teaches a course on the legal and social implications of the war on drugs. Her students, she says, inspired her novel. She realized that their view of the war on drugs was that “one mistake or bad decision can destroy the rest of your life,” says Waldman, who points out that while George W. Bush’s youthful brush with drugs went unpunished, “now you have to pay the ultimate price for that kind of indiscretion, even if it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
Her students, she says, are predominantly in their twenties and so “much closer than I am to the bad judgment of adolescence.” The 39-year-old author, who has four children with her husband, novelist Michael Chabon (The
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Wonder Boys), drew on her own maternal fears as an entry point into Daughter’s Keeper.
Olivia is the novel’s protagonist, a 20-year-old woman living with her boyfriend, Jorge, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. When Olivia inadvertently takes a phone message for Jorge about a planned drug sale, she becomes implicated in his crime. The situation is further complicated when Olivia discovers she is pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. The baby, she decides, is the one positive factor in her life. However, faced with a possible 10-year prison sentence, she must find a home for her child. Olivia has no one to turn to other than her mother, Elaine, a woman who never relished motherhood.
“What I imagined doing was writing a searing indictment of the war on drugs,” Waldman says. “If I had succeeded in doing that, I wouldn’t have written a good book.” The story itself conveys Waldman’s views on the drug war without her having to proselytize.
Guidelines leave judges little discretion
Waldman uses Olivia’s predicament to train her lens on drug-related sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences. When the sentencing guidelines passed in 1986 and Congress pushed the mandatory minimums through shortly afterward, the landscape changed markedly for those charged with drug use or trafficking. According to Waldman, the sentencing guidelines are “actually firm required sentences” that leave judges little discretion. The charge a prosecutor files against a defendant, she says, determines the length of the prison term.
Since Ronald Reagan escalated the drug war in 1980, the number of women in prison has increased 500 percent, says Waldman. What’s more, when a mother whose child is under three years of age goes to prison, the child is sent into the foster-care system if no one else is able to care for him. If the mother cannot reclaim her child in three to six months, the child is put up for adoption.
This scenario is far from atypical, reports Waldman, since many women go to prison because they’re implicated in the drug activities of their boyfriends or husbands, leaving no one at home to care for the children. Like most women whose participation in a drug crime is largely incidental, Olivia has no information to trade to prosecutors to reduce the length of her sentence.
Waldman, who set Daughter’s Keeper in the East Bay, considers her novel “a very Bay Area story.” She identifies with Olivia, whose left-leaning political views remind her, she says, of herself at that age. “I had that sweet but incredible naïveté that she has,” admits Waldman. “Berkeley is the center of the universe for children like that,” she continues, “and while that level of commitment is very sweet, at the same time you want to smack them, because they’re so naïve.”
More ‘Berkeley types’
Olivia’s mother, Elaine, who has moved to the West Coast from New Jersey to forge a new identity, is, according to Waldman, “another kind of Berkeley type.” And then there’s Izaya, the public defender who represents Olivia in court, a “Berkeley Black Jew,” as Waldman calls him. “I really like the idea of writing about someone like that,” she says, while adding that she hopes she “didn’t get anything too wrong.”
Waldman, who averages about six months to write a “Mommy Track” mystery, was pregnant with her fourth child while she was working on Daughter’s Keeper. During the three years it took to write the novel, she also published two mysteries. “I write those books really fast,” she says. “They need to have a momentum that’s plot driven — you’re supposed to read them while you’re breastfeeding.”
While she plans to continue writing mysteries, Waldman loved the challenge of working on the novel. “I cared about every single word,” she says. “And I cared that every sentence is where it should be, and that it is the right sentence.” Waldman is already 150 pages into her next novel, a story set in Montreal about her grandmother and her six sisters, called The Bloom Girls.
With four young children, writing, and teaching, it’s hard to imagine when Waldman finds time to sleep. “I have a very syrupy strain of laziness,” she confides. “If allowed, I’d do nothing but lie on the couch and read novels. So I have to be constantly busy.”