The following is an oral history of Irma Rodriguez, conducted by Ayelet Waldman, a novelist, essayist, and former public defender. Rodriguez spent years in a California prison, and underwent seventeen years of HIV therapy before finding out her initial test result was wrong. Irma Rodriguez is a pseudonym.

- - -

I’m in my early forties and have spent more than half my life in prison or on parole. One of the first things I remember was when I was five years old. This big blue car pulled up to the trailer where I lived with my mom, and a lady with a big old hat came and put me in the car. She was from Children’s Services and she took me away with her. Later I found out that someone had called Children’s Services because of my stepfather. He never molested me, never touched me. But he was a heroin addict. I remember always smelling burnt matches all the time as a kid. I hate that smell. One time when he went out to cop some dope, he left me alone in the trailer with the outside of the trailer door tied shut.

A lady in another trailer saw that and called the police. Children’s Services took me to court, and the judge didn’t let any of my family have me. I remember screaming, but it didn’t matter. I went back and forth between my grandparents and my godparents for a while, but finally the court agreed to let me live permanently with my grandparents. My mom would try to get me back, but she was a heroin addict and the court wouldn’t give her custody. She tried hard, even getting herself on a methadone maintenance program. But all her efforts made no difference to the court. They wouldn’t give me back. And in the end, she got hooked on pharmaceutical meds. Valium, codeine, anything that was a downer.

My grandparents tried their best with me. My grandfather was a good provider, he was a janitor with a regular income. They did what they could, but even so, I didn’t have too much of an affectionate childhood. They were soft with me, they never yelled or hit me. My grandfather couldn’t read or write, but still he expected respect. He thought that it was the most disrespectful thing for the government to come knock on his door and expect to just come in.

In the end, though, I think I would have been better off disciplined instead of enabled with toys and candy and ice cream. My grandmother tried to teach me to do what’s right. But my grandfather had no education, he just rolled with the punches, ditching and dodging. Two different kinds of nurturing, good and bad. In my case it just happened that the bad nurturing outweighed the good nurturing.

In second grade I started having visitations with my mom on the weekend, but I didn’t trust her. But in sixth grade, when I started developing, things began happening. I wanted to do all sorts of stuff my grandparents wouldn’t allow. At my mom’s house I could do anything I wanted, because she was hardly there. I’d have boys over, I could leave and not come back until the next day, she wouldn’t question it. She’d yell, but all it took was a pill and a glass of Kool-Aid to keep her quiet.

In seventh grade, my grandparents finally gave up on me and I went with my mother for good. Then it all started: the cigarettes, the drinking, the hanging out with gangs, and going out with boys. I even became a prostitute. And I started using drugs. With my mother already living the life of an addict it seemed normal to me. My mother did it and my stepfather did it and everyone else out here was doing it.

The first time I was sent to Juvenile Hall, I was twelve and it was for school truancy, being a runaway and an incorrigible delinquent, and for using phencyclidine, a.k.a. angel dust, a.k.a. PCP. My grandparents were devastated. They just couldn’t understand how it had gone wrong.

But they were loyal.

My grandmother would not miss a visit. I remember the counselors at Juvenile Hall would give her lists of things I was allowed to have—half of which I didn’t even need—and she would bring every single thing on the list. My grandma even started bringing things for the other girls, too. It was like she was the grandma of the whole unit.

Once, instead of Juvenile Hall, I was sent to boot camp. When they let me go home on passes for the weekend, I just left. And that’s when I got pregnant. I was fifteen, and I was smoking PCP on a daily basis by then. I was drinking alcohol and smoking PCP all day. When my baby daughter was born they took her into custody and sent me back to Juvenile Hall. By now, though, my mom had gotten off the methadone. So my mom was able to get custody of her.

I was so glad my little daughter didn’t end up in foster care. By then I’d been around so many women in prison. I’d see them crying on the phone and stuff because they had just heard that somebody had touched their little girl in the wrong areas—private areas. I don’t think I could endure hearing that somebody touched my baby in her private area. It makes me so grateful that my mom was able to rebound and care for my daughter. At least she avoided being abused in foster care. But of course, in the end, my daughter had a baby at fifteen. It’s like the cycle was never broken.