Sonja’s Look – excerpt from S+L

Snakes and Ladders is a memoir about prison by NSW author Angela J Williams.
The Sonja Look

This is an excerpt from Snakes and Ladders. Book is currently in development with Affirm Press. Follow Angela J Williams on Facebook  for more excerpts and news on publication. 

At the evening muster on Thursday, Delma completely loses it. She’s been locked in her cell since Wednesday morning. I’m standing on the line and can see her face pressed against the Perspex window as she screams rage out at the screw running the count. She rants against him and then starts trashing her cell. A precious china coffee cup is the first thing she flings out the window and it smashing on the ground finally gets the screw to turn towards her.

‘Keep it in your cell, Delma,’ he yells at her. ‘You’re already on the truck to Mulawa in the morning, don’t make it any worse for yourself.’

A chair hits the window next, its plastic back bouncing again and again as she hammers out her rage. The screw’s shoulders are firm and his chin set as he turns back to us and the count. There’s a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth and it reminds me of a look I’ve felt on my own face while dealing with slaves in the dungeons of Salon Kittys. He’s got the look of a person unavoidably in power who’s confused – but not surprised – by the reaction he’s seeing. Like he doesn’t understand why Delma doesn’t see how much of a game this all is.

I remember standing in a dungeon with a slave grovelling near my feet. His shoulders were hunched down and his face took on a look, half worship, half terror, that I remember seeing many times on my stepfather’s face. As I wondered at the resemblance, the senior Mistress who was supervising the session leaned close and said (loud enough for both of us to hear): ‘See that look Mistress, that look tells us that he’s absolutely under our power. We’ve got full control of this dirty little slut now.’ The light bulb that went off in my head burned and sparked in that dungeon. The look my stepfather gave my mother was exactly this. He was a submissive person, I realised in that moment, and my mother was dominant, a sadist. I didn’t have the time to process this, focussed as I was on keeping slavey-poo tangled up in his fantasy. But later, in the girls’ room, as I unlaced my corset and took off my high-heeled boots I shared my revelation with the other mistresses, debriefed the sudden understanding that my mother was a sadist, that her anger could have been safe if she’d known how to direct it.

‘Maybe if my parents had lived at a different time,’ I tell them, ‘a different place, then they might have found a way to do this safely, sanely, consensually.’

Instead, my mother raged at my stepfather and me, took her sadism out on the weakest people she could reach because she was too afraid to look inside and see how much she enjoyed hurting. My mother and her rage made sense in this context and the mistresses at Salon Kittys took this reading as a given.

The look on the screw’s face is my mistress face. He gets how much of a joke this is, can see the uselessness of Delma’s rage and is trying not to crack a smile.  Later, I imagine, when he is back in the office and takes his heavy belt and hat off, he’ll debrief this moment – just like I did with the mistresses –  and try to work out how Delma didn’t see the way she’d been backed into throwing the cup.


When Delma is finally unlocked and walked to reception for the bus back to Mulawa I watch from my knitting circle with empathy, compassion and regret. She’ll never know what she gave me – how my understanding of her anger finally cemented that understanding of my mother’s anger, and my fear of that anger, that first began to gel when I learned to recognise the face of person helplessly railing against an unchallengeable power. I may have been living with fear of her for thirteen years, but I’ve now learned to shake off that fear and let myself feel for her, for my mother and for that terrified version of me looking at the blood on my fingertips.  I’m grateful, right now for the privileges I do have, the ladders that have let me climb out of what I was given, shown me a way to move ahead in the game.

All of a sudden it feels less like this whole experience is less me losing the game, and more a chance for me to read the rule book more closely, to think deeply about the strategies I employ, the places I inhabit.

Poor Delma, I think, but wouldn’t take her place for a second.

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