Lost Souls Share Their Story in Women’s Prison in Debra Jo Immergut’s ‘The Captives’

Although I follow many authors from book to book, which keeps a steady supply on my nightstand, I take an occasional suggestion from a reliable friend or the New York Times Book Review and reserve it at the library. My bank account cannot sustain my reading habit.

Debra Jo Immergut’s “The Captives” caught my eye on the NYT’s list of Summer Reading thrillers. The novel seemed a fortuitous choice when I discovered that Immergut attended Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda in the early 1980s. Now living in western Massachusetts, the author has great credentials: She is a MacDowell and Michener fellow and holds an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short story collection, “Private Property,” was published in 1992, and since then, she has worked as a magazine editor and journalist, and taught writing in libraries, military bases and prisons.

Immergut’s psychological thriller is set in Milford Basin, a women’s prison in upstate New York. The protagonists are Miranda Greene, 22 months into a 52-year sentence for second-degree murder without chance of parole, and Frank Lundquist, a prison psychologist. Coincidentally—or not—they were classmates at Lincoln High School in a Washington, D.C. suburb (wink), and unbeknownst to her, she was his crush. While Frank recognizes Miranda immediately, which reignites his adolescent feelings, she appears—to him—to have zero recall; back then, he confesses, despite his stalking behavior, she never noticed him either. We learn that Miranda does sense a “faint familiarity” that she cannot place.

Beyond the literal and figurative prisons they inhabit, Miranda and Frank share other commonalities that inform their interaction and forge their otherwise unlikely bond. Each has a father who has enjoyed some success; hers was a one-term congressman, and his, a celebrated psychologist. Both have a lost sibling—her teenage older sister died in a car accident; his much younger brother is an unrepentant drug addict who lives mostly on the streets.

Most important, their mutual unforgiveable actions and colossal failures to thrive—despite advantaged beginnings—mark their parallel lives. In high school, Miranda was an “it” girl, blessed with physical beauty and intelligence, for whom a charmed life was expected. Instead, “grief and shame and regret” have prevailed, and the responsibility she takes for her family’s falling apart motivated her destructive young adult behavior.

Now 32, hopeless despite some strong friendships with fellow prisoners and a preoccupation with the drama within the prison community, Miranda has tired of “passing hours like this … chasing down moments from her earliest years,” and is planning her own death. She manipulates Frank into the role of providing the pills that will help her to reach her goal. “The man was merely the medium for getting the medication she needed.”

Frank had been “child zero” in the achievement tests his father produced to great acclaim, yet he “never quite attain(ed) the pinnacles that had been predicted for him” by those assessment tools. He loses his standing as a psychologist as a result of his tragic failure with a child patient and thus, the only job he could get was this relegation to an office in a correctional facility’s basement. Considering the shambles of his personal—a divorce is also in the works—and professional life, Frank sees Miranda as “his reason to get out of bed.” His intention is redemption, that is, a positive outcome for both Miranda and himself.

The novel’s alternating voices form is noteworthy. Frank speaks in first person, making him less reliable; that is emphasized by each of his chapters labeled with American Psychological Association’s Ethical Codes of Conduct directives. With deliberate awareness, he breaks every rule. I tended to place more trust in the third person omniscient observer that narrates Miranda’s sections.

In the correctional facility’s dim light, many stories of the characters’ past and present are told. That they are consistently out of chronological order is a bit confusing, but this somehow seems more in line with the processes of human thought. The exact nature of Miranda’s crime is not divulged until the book’s last final pages. The conclusion, which is logical in retrospect, still is a surprise.

Immergut says she is completing her second novel, about a “forty-something woman literally haunted by the specter of her younger self.” I look forward to another well-written book with an interesting premise and ample nice turns of phrase.