Going to prison was one of the best things that ever happened to Pat MacEnulty.
By the late 1970s, when she and some friends were arrested for breaking into a pharmacy to steal drugs, MacEnulty had been aching for a big change. A smart young woman from a creative family, she had grown weary of the dangerous, drug-centered subculture she'd coasted into five or six years earlier and now found hard to leave. Prison wasn't exactly the kind of change MacEnulty had in mind, but by the time she was released 17 months later, she had turned her life around 180 degrees.
Earlier this year, Dr. Pat MacEnulty, wearing a stylish outfit offset by short purple boots, steps onto the Story Slam stage to read from her work. She's the author of five novels, several children's plays, numerous essays and an upcoming memoir. Her reading style is lively, almost theatrical, a raised hand or a lifted eyebrow punctuating her straightforward, nearly journalistic style with dashes of emotion and emphasis. When she reads an excerpt from her first novel, Sweet Fire, in which an argument rages among young drug addicts, the audience is rapt, silent. MacEnulty teaches at Johnson & Wales University, leads writing workshops, enjoys publishers on two continents, has her own website, and is every bit the confident professional. So how did druggie/felon Pat MacEnulty become respected author Pat MacEnulty, holding audiences' attention with her clear, rich prose? That's what this story is about.
MacEnulty grew up in 1960s Jacksonville, Fla., as part of an artistically inclined, New England-formed family -- a background that gradually gave her a detached view of the city and its Southern ways, as if she were in it but also standing apart. Her mother, a highly talented composer, musician and director, was married to a jazz pianist.
"They had a horrible marriage," MacEnulty says, "and he left when I was 3. Then, when I was 5 or 6, my older brothers -- my two big heroes -- left the nest." She missed her brothers terribly, but her mother, whose responsibilities included being musical director for Jacksonville's community theater, took her to rehearsals, where, she says, "I learned to entertain myself. I read books, I thought up stories, I had my own little imaginary world going, I got to play in the costumes ... I think a lot of writers are alone for long stretches of their childhood, and that's where they start developing their imaginations."
When Pat was in second grade, a man broke into their home and assaulted her mother. Soon, mother and daughter moved to a more secure neighborhood, but the school there was stifling and "felt like a prison." Before long, "I was an angry little kid. I started acting out in the sixth grade, and didn't stop till I was about 24," MacEnulty recounts, laughing. Such elementary school "acting out" as shoplifting and serial cursing eventually turned into ninth grade pot smoking and acid taking. Her mother remarried, to a man Pat couldn't abide, so in the early '70s, she moved to St. Louis to live for a year with her political activist brother and his wife, an opera singer.
"I learned a lot, so that was overall a good year in my life," says MacEnulty, who based much of her most recent novel, Picara, on her experiences during that year.
She moved back to Jacksonville and high school, "and that's when everything went down," she explains. "It wasn't a bad school, but I had too many self-esteem issues and it all hit at once: sexuality, drugs ... All the cool kids were into drugs, and I had to be the coolest and outdo everyone else -- I had to be an overachiever, I guess [chuckles]. I was doing really well in high school, I made the National Honor Society, but I was already looking down the barrel of a gun."
She got into hard drugs, then, after high school, went to college, off and on, for four or five years, doing well one semester and then flunking the next. At the same time, she got involved with groups of fellow hard drug users, and moved with them around the country; once, at age 19, she helped smuggle heroin from Mexico.
"I was part of that whole drug-centered subculture, moved around to Miami, to New York, and then back to Jacksonville," MacEnulty explains. "I'd see my mother occasionally, but it was hard on her to see what was happening with me. I tried a couple of drug programs during that time, but they weren't effective, and I was never off drugs for long."
She and her friends started breaking into drug stores to swipe drugs, and finally she was busted. Later, those years would form the basis of Sweet Fire. "All of those people," MacEnulty says today, "either died or went to prison for a long time.