Dec 10, 2022 • 12M

Chapter 9, Part 4: Falling in Love over a Contraband Phone

Martin Shkreli and I chatted almost constantly when he had a contraband cell phone in prison. It was like having a friend with me wherever I went.

 
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My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.
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An image of a cell phone

Every time my phone buzzed with a message from Martin Shkreli while he was in prison, it was like a pinprick of secret glee. He was still one of the most notorious characters in the business world, still a juicy “get” for any reporter, and I had him more or less in my pocket, both literally and figuratively. The dopamine rush was incredible. 

Multiple times each day, the screen would light up with notifications. And I always had to look immediately. I couldn’t force myself to ignore them, even when my ex-husband would glance at me on the couch in our living room, staring into my phone, and complain: “Babe. You don’t have to talk to him now. Pharma Jerk will still be in jail tomorrow.”

At first, I talked with him over CorrLinks, the official closed-circuit email system that people in federal prison are allowed to use. It had a cell phone app people on the outside could use for convenience. I downloaded it so that I could always reply to Martin swiftly. Not that the matter was ever urgent. I just really wanted to see what he said, and keep the conversation going.

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Mostly, we discussed his legal case, anecdotes for my book, and what was going on in prison. Sometimes we talked about our past relationships, families or other details about our personal lives. I vented about my difficulties with my ex-husband, and he lamented about how one of his more recent girlfriends, a Columbia grad student who had introduced herself to him via an unsolicited photo of her boobs, hadn’t visited him.

Sometimes he wanted to brag to me about mastering a new layer of prison knowledge, like when he figured out how to obtain magic markers so he could tutor other inmates in economics. Sometimes we talked about whatever he was reading, or his future plans for whenever he got out. Sometimes he just wanted to complain about the prosecutors or make jokes about them.

I indulged his mockery of the government because, well, it was fun. And also I was increasingly disturbed by how much he was under a microscope. It bothered me that I couldn’t communicate with him without prison guards or the prosecutors watching. 

CorrLinks was monitored, and I knew anyone in the Department of Justice could obtain our emails without much trouble. To warn Martin about that possibility, and also to show my annoyance at the lack of privacy, I started calling out the prosecutors sometimes, by first name, as if they were in a room with us and I was casually waving. (For instance, sometimes I’d throw in a cheery “Hi Jackie!”, directed at the lead prosecutor Jacquelyn Kasulis, in parentheses.) 

Of course, Martin being Martin, he did not heed the warning. And prosecutors being prosecutors, they likely did not enjoy my cheeky familiarity. They used some of Martin’s remarks to me, like some of his capricious rants about the legal process and his pompous overestimation of his IQ, as evidence he was not remorseful. They drew liberally from our exchanges in a memorandum to the judge, asking she sentence him to more than 15 years.

Although I knew the government could do all of those things, seeing my own conversations with Martin (I was identified as “Individual-1”) in court papers still shocked me. Knowing water is cold doesn’t make it any less bracing when it’s suddenly dumped over your head. I felt violated.

When the judge ended up incorporating some of those remarks into her decision to give him 7 years, I also felt sick with guilt. I wasn’t Martin’s girlfriend at the time, but my heart immediately swelled with empathy for every loved one of an incarcerated person who had ever similarly been used as a “tool.” Imagine wanting to show support for a person in a difficult and lonely moment, offering a kind ear, and then seeing all of those conversations used to punish them.

A reasonable person would probably assume Martin would have been wary of chatting with me again after that whole mess. Indeed, his lawyer Benjamin Brafman told him our conversations likely cost him two years. But instead, after Martin was sentenced in March 2018 and transferred to FCI Fort Dix in New Jersey, we talked even more — especially after he got a contraband cell phone.

Finally, we were free, with no observers who were looking for reasons to hurt him lurking in the background. We could also chat instantaneously; the prison email system, by contrast, was delayed by at least an hour at each end. And because Martin had figured out the prison black market, he managed to avoid having a job. The responsibility could always be outsourced to another inmate for a fee. So we could talk almost any time of day. 

With his brain always just a few taps on my phone away, I almost had a sense he was with me wherever I went. It was like the 2013 movie “Her,” where Joaquin Phoenix’s character develops a romantic relationship with an A.I. assistant in his phone.

Was I falling in love with Martin? The forbidden thought skated occasionally across my brain. Sometimes it was chased by another sneaky question: Was Martin falling in love with me? 

Unlike with scores of other women he’d been with, he never hit on me, or made direct sexual remarks, or even commented on my appearance (either positively or negatively). Instead, it was more like our consciousnesses started to meld. 

It was easy enough to understand why that happened. We were both socially liberal political moderates, even though he identified as “Republican” and I leaned toward “Democrat.” We had similar critical opinions of authority (although I was much better at biting my tongue). We despised the condescension of media elites. We admired working-class bootstraps success stories. And we both loved flexing our ingenuity and resourcefulness.

“You’d be a great inmate,” he told me, amused, after I offered some ideas for jury-rigging items from the commissary for various purposes.

All the while, I also continued talking to some of Martin’s “harem” members, or the friends he had occasionally slept with in the past with no strings attached. One of them, whom I met with in person, listened eagerly as I explained my interactions with him — the discussions of books, our mutual values, attitudes and ambitions, and also how he never acted overtly sexual toward me but would instead show low-key signs of respect and affection. 

He was also more comfortable with me than with most people. Dozens of fans and admirers, both male and female, were asking him all the time to visit him in prison. There were only a few close  friends he permitted to come. I was the first name he added to his list, and I was allowed to see him the most often.

Martin’s friend nodded as I told all of this to her, while we sat down at a table in a restaurant in Brooklyn. It was clear I was “different” from the rest of the “girls” in his life, she said, finally. It made sense to her that Martin would put on grandiose “alpha male” displays for women who meant little to him (and for male fans who looked up to that sort of nonsense), while being much quieter when he had “real” feelings.

Sex partners were easy enough for him to find, she pointed out. (And so were journalists who might want to interview him or write books about him, I realized.) Companionship was much more precious.

“You’re wifey,” she added. And of course, I laughed, blushing, embarrassed that I’d let myself wander this far into silly “girl talk” over a man I was writing a book about.

But at least I was no longer covering Martin for Bloomberg, to my great relief. After I had been chastised once by editors and HR over my vaguely sympathetic tweets about him (but not my stories, which appeared objective enough in an editorial review), I eagerly agreed to no longer write about him for the news organization and try to focus on other legal stories. Had it been an option, I would have gladly moved to another beat entirely. Being in a fuzzy state of conflictedness was not a situation I enjoyed. 

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At home, I also didn’t like the fact that I didn’t have the same sense of mutual support and connection with my ex-husband as I did with Martin. I wanted more than anything to be “friends” with my spouse, and be able to laugh over the same absurdities and find pleasure just by talking to each other about random subjects. But every time I’d try to raise the topic of wanting to feel more “in tune” and understood, the conversation always turned toxic and went nowhere.

Eventually, my will to maintain a facade — both with my ex-husband and my former employer — gave out. I needed to just be me, to figure out whatever it was I was doing with Martin, and wherever my life was headed, and not be suffocated by pressure to ignore whatever feelings I was developing. 

And there was so…much…pressure. Leaving my job would raise questions from my colleagues, and my mentors, and would infuriate my ex-husband. I knew he would probably berate me for “jeopardizing” our financial future, even though he earned a generous salary, we had no debt or children, and he had already amassed more in savings than most people have when they retire. (I also was not intending to stay unemployed forever.)

Still, a moment came when it was time to choose. Realizing I was still working on a book, my editors at Bloomberg had not forbidden me from tweeting about Martin. I did agree to follow certain rules. I didn’t think I broke any of those rules, but I could sense from the dirty looks I kept getting when walking past upper management at headquarters that they weren’t exactly pleased with my continued commentary.

An editor mentioned to me that they didn’t like that I had tweeted a photo of Martin with his parents after his sentencing. They were also bothered when I tweeted excerpts from Martin’s fan mail, which he forwarded to me from prison. Finally, on July 9, 2018, my editors asked me once again to meet with them and an HR representative about my tweets. I walked into the office knowing exactly what I would say.

They started laying out their concerns. After raising some arguments that I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, I blurted out: “It’s fine, though. I can leave. If this is a problem, I’ll just leave.” 

The HR rep and my editor looked at each other. “Um, we didn’t prepare for that…” the rep said, trailing off. I offered to go back to my desk while they decided what they wanted me to do. Because of Bloomberg’s open office plan (with reporters and editors sitting elbow-to-elbow, with no walls or cubicles between them), I could see that a hasty meeting was being assembled with top brass. My editor soon returned.

“Ok, we will accept your resignation today,” she told me. She asked if I would write a letter stating that I was quitting, and I obliged. Then before I left, I said goodbye to my colleagues in the newsroom. I hugged my editor, she wished me luck, and I walked out of the building.

Note: All spoken quotes in this piece are my best recollection from memory. They are not precisely accurate, but I believe they substantially reflect the content of what was said.

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