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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Verna McFelin talks about The Invisible Sentence

Verna McFelin has dedicated her life to a part of the criminal justice system most of us forget to remember – the families, especially the children of offenders.

The work Verna has done with Pillars, an organisation that supports the children and families of prisoners in New Zealand she founded in 1988 has been praised around the world. Verna talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about “The Invisible Sentence”.

Reviewers have said it is riveting from start to finish. In a devastating turn of events, my life and my children’s lives changed forever when police knocked on my door one evening and my husband was arrested for kidnapping, then tried and sentenced to eleven years in jail.

While visiting prisons around New Zealand and meeting other families I soon realised that not only were the prisoner’s serving a sentence, but the families were also serving their own invisible sentences outside of the prison wire.

The “Invisible Sentence” is my memoir of how my four children, and I survived our own sentence. It’s my story on how we survived poverty and injustices and yet received miraculous provision. It’s how I suffered trauma and shame and then went on to establishing Pillars and changing the face of the justice system in New Zealand and the world.


"... a story of institutional maltreatment, of bureaucratic indifference, of the traumatisation and bullying of her children, of individual acts of cruelty and generosity, of hardship, of the value of collective strength and support-and of resilience and faithfulness in the face of adversity." -Sir Kim Workman KNZM, QSO

What inspired you to write this book?

My Chief Executive role was made redundant at Pillars after 32 years. There was a lot of grief around this, and I found myself going from over 100 emails a day and having a very busy and purposeful life to an empty life without purpose and meaning.

Somewhere deep inside, I remembered that I was going to write a book on my experience to encourage and help others, and I decided that this was the time. I wanted the book to be read by anyone, including “non-readers” and those with English as their second language. I can remember when I was at school, an English teacher gave me some wise advice, “If you ever write a book, write it using twelve-year-old prose, so anyone can read it.” I took this advice, but still making it an easy read for adults. The chapters are short and keep the suspense as well as having a really good story line. Each chapter is a full story so you can start reading at any place in the book, whatever story takes your fancy.

What research was involved?

There was no research involved, except as Founder of Pillars I held a lot of technical knowledge about families of prisoners. I was involved in the world’s first ground breaking research on children of prisoners in New Zealand and the research drew on my experience. So because the book was my own personal story, it was all inside of me. I did though, go through media clips and presentations I had given when working at Pillars. It just all came together.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

My husband is building a big house in our retirement and we’re living on the back of the section in a one-bedroom house build out of “red zone materials (earthquake salvage) in the meantime, so while he was down on the building site I got in front of my laptop and started writing. Writing is like a second language for me. In my job I had written technical books and manuals and there was regular report writing involved so writing the book was relatively easy. I knew it was the time because the words just flowed onto the pages and it only took about 20 hours from start to finish. Having said that there were twice as many hours involved in getting the book ready for publishing.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Leonard Cohen’s, “Anthem.”

“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

I had plenty of cracks (and still have – no one is perfect) and that beam of light shone through those cracks and penetrated my darkness, broke through my being, and gave me hope and purpose. When times are rough and circumstances are brutal we are in darkness, but that’s when our quest for light begins. It is the ultimate pursuit of every human being, whether they acknowledge it or not, to know and worship a “higher power.” Our higher power, whatever it might be, gives us meaning and purpose in life.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

I would prefer the movie was New Zealand made. Perhaps written and directed by Taikia Waititi. I love the rawness of his work. I don’t have a preference for actresses as long as they represent the role well.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Invisible Sentence?

That every life is precious. That even in the darkest hours, there is always hope and a purpose. I want readers to take away, that when all seems lost, a light shines through the darkness and whatever your circumstances, the light can break in, transform your life and turn your circumstances around to help and support others. Nothing is ever wasted.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Once the “Invisible Sentence” is out in the public eye, I will be working on the sequel, “Pillars of Strength.” It’s the compelling story of my 32 years as founder and chief executive of Pillars, the organisation that has made a difference in the lives of thousands of children with a parent in prison. I’m already halfway through.

I’ve also formed a company, “Everyone Has A Story.” I want to write people’s biographies so that they can inspire the world with their stories. There are plenty of stories to tell.


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