AC Fraser is the winner of Creative Nonfiction’s “True Crime” essay contest. Fraser’s essay recalls time spent in the Vancouver prison system, and the tumultuous lifestyle that led her there. She was arrested for identity theft. Today, AC is a writer and yoga instructor in Vancouver, BC. Her work has appeared in The Incarcerated Inkwell, CV2, Ditch, and Carte Blanche.
Your essay, “Origami & the Art of Identity Folding,” combines several time frames and narratives. In the main story, you sit in a cell, and in flashbacks you revisit the past from a perspective that is in-the-moment, full of fear and exhilaration. Why did you decide to structure the story in this multifaceted way, as opposed to just describing the crime, the jail time, or your present day thoughts on either?
The structure of the story mirrors my thought process as I sat in cells that day. While I wasn't being harassed, I spent my time attempting to puzzle out what in the hell was going on. I'd been through the system enough to know that something highly out of the ordinary was afoot. I invite the reader through my confusion. Additionally, a lot of reminiscing goes on in jail. There's nothing like stacking uniform days one on top of another to turn even the most callous inmate into a nostalgia buff. In that sense, flashbacks work well within a jail narrative. Finally, to ensure that all of the key elements fit, I had to fold the story back upon itself a few times, origami-style.
How much time went by between the events of this story and when you wrote about it?
Roughly five and half years have elapsed.
How would you describe your research and writing process?
It's a beautiful mess. I begin with an event or feeling that has prominence in my mind. In "Origami," the jail-house confrontation between myself and the guard was the anchor. From there, I throw down free associations: people, themes, imagery, situations, feelings, bits of remembered dialogue—anything and everything. Eventually the relevant components start to coalesce into a narrative. It's kind of like panning for gold. Somewhere in your enormous pile of silt and rock, you hope to find a nugget. More often than not, what I have left at the end of the process isn't at all what I set out to initially write.
As for research, the reference material available to me is patchy at best. I have a scattering of jail letters, police records, and a paper labyrinth of disclosure gifted to me by my lawyer. When possible, I try to have a conversation with the people who appear in my work to hear their version of events.
Why identity theft? How did the idea originate?
A habit is an expensive pet. My capacity to perform basic functions, such as showing up on time, had been annihilated by my drug use. It wasn't out of the ordinary for me to spend upwards of three days picking out an outfit to wear before I could leave my house. So, a regular job was out of the question. There were four revenue generators that fit the lifestyle I was leading: sell drugs, steal things, have sex for money, or do fraud. I tried a few of the others, but ultimately identity theft was the option that stuck.
My first experience with fraud was a counterfeit credit card given to me by a friend. I attempted to buy us some clothing at a popular store on Robson. The card looked terrible, as if it had sat for days in the Mojave until a pack of starving coyotes attempted to make a last meal of it. I didn't get the merchandise, and it's a wonder I got out of the store at all without getting arrested. I knew I could do better. I spent years developing my technique through trial and error and there came a point where I didn't know how to do much else.
In the story you say you adopted several false identities, but you describe only one—the nurse—in detail; printing her ID's, wearing scrubs and white shoes, withdrawing money from her bank. Can you tell us about some other identities you adopted, and methods you used?
I had one credit card with the first name “James.” I considered finding a male friend to run it, but I didn't want to trust another sketchy addict. I gathered up the necessary gall and marched into a store. At the counter, the clerk glanced down at the name and I was immediately on the receiving end of a highly suspicious look. Before she had a chance to speak, I launched into a counteroffensive. “I know, I know,” I said with a heaving sigh, “I'm named after my great-aunt. It's terrible. Trust me girl, don't name your future kids after dead relatives.” The salesperson laughed, and I was on my way. The ironic part about that story is that I actually did have a great-aunt named Keith. There are hoards of other instances that I could reel off for you, but it's hard to do so without feeling like I'm indulging in excessive glorification.
A prison guard says he hardly recognized you without your nurse's uniform. The reader never finds out exactly how the guard was connected to the nurse and your crime. Did you ever learn what his connection was?
All these years later, I still have no idea. The mystery is preserved.
Is it possible to compare a new identity you adopt as a con artist to a new identity you build while writing yourself into creative nonfiction? What similarities and differences do you find between these two masks?
When I write, I strive for authenticity. I need to hear my internal voice reflected back at me—no bullshit, no frills, no revisionist white-washing. I push myself to take risks, be open, and ultimately not give a damn about how people may judge me based on what they read. That takes a kamikaze attitude. If there's one similarity between writing creative nonfiction and fraud, there it is. People intuitively sense diffidence and draw away. Self-doubt will tear asunder good work and kill any con-game. Yet while writing memoir, nonfiction demands that I show up as myself, fraud subsumed my personal identity.
You’re planning to start law school this fall. Is this a new idea, or have you thought about studying law for a while? Do you have plans for what you would do with a law degree?
After getting my undergraduate degree I considered going into law. I wrote my LSAT, but when the time came to complete the rest of the application process, I froze. I was burnt out from four years of intense studying and was dealing with a severe bout of clinical depression. I began to self-medicate with crystal meth and the rest is history. I decided to re-apply to law school after much consideration. In a sense, I've come full circle. I'm interested in areas of the law that intersect with marginalized segments of the population. I'd like to be more of an advocate than a lawyer, if I end up practicing at all. Who knows, maybe I'll just be another writer with a law degree!
You’ve said that writing about that particular period in your life is a way to take your “lost years” and turn them into art. Does the writing only help make something constructive out of a negative memory, or is it therapeutic as well? Have you revisited old decisions and feelings, helping you to understand what was going through your mind at the time? Has writing about yourself changed your view of yourself or your past?
I look back in order to foster a clearer view forward. Those years were extremely tumultuous and writing about them has brought a semblance of order to the chaos that is my memory. Rather than retroactively analyze my motivations, I write to codify events and, furthermore, to figure out how those experiences impact the person I am today. At times the process feels therapeutic, and at others it's simply unbearable. There are still a handful of situations that I haven't been able to successfully explore.
What else are you working on, currently?
I'm working on completing the essay series that covers my time in Vancouver's crime, and methamphetamine counterculture. Every now and then, when the mood strikes, I fire off some verse. I've also recently started work on my first fiction novel, which explores themes of sexual commodification, objectification, and self-determination.
Max Schlosser is a Nonfiction English Writing student at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an intern at Creative Nonfiction and an assistant editor and writer for The Original Magazine.