Monthly Book Review: Shakespeare Saved My Life

Dr. Laura Bates is an  English professor at Indiana State University, where she has taught courses on Shakespeare for the past fifteen years to students on campus and in prison. She has a PhD from the University of Chicago with a focus on Shakespearean studies. Her work has been featured in the national media, including MSNBC’s Lockup.

Laura Bates’ book, Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, recounts her experiences as a prison volunteer. She had decided to teach Shakespeare in a place the bard had never been before – supermax solitary confinement. In this unwelcoming place, surrounded by inmates known as the worst of the worst, is Larry Newton. A convicted murderer with several escape attempts under his belt and a brilliantly agile mind on his shoulders, Larry was trying to break out of prison at the same time Laura was fighting to get her program started behind bars.

Chapter One opens with the line, “Oh, man, this is my favorite freakin’ quote!” Larry Newton  flipped open the two-thousand-page Complete Works of Shakespeare and found the quote immediately: “When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound.” Bates thinks, “This is crazy. I am sitting side-by-side with a prisoner who has just recently been allowed to join the general prison population after more than ten years in solitary confinement.” She met Larry in 2003 when she created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit, and they spent three years working together in that unit.

Bates remarks that critics of correctional education say prisoners are motivated only by the time cut. (In some states, they can reduce their sentence by a year or two by earning a degree.) She writes, “I have two responses to that. One: Why is a prisoner’s motivation to earn a degree so that he can return to his family sooner viewed more negatively than a campus student’s motivation to earn a degree so he can make more money? And, two: What about the motivation of a prisoner like Larry Newton, who is serving a sentence of life with no possibility of parole?”

In Chapter Five, Bates recalls entering her department chairperson’s office at Indiana State and blurting out, “I just got permission to start a Shakespeare program in solitary confinement!” At this point in her career, Bates was a tenure-track assistant professor, teaching Shakespeare courses on campus and in prison through Indiana State University’s correction education program. She says, “I thought that my new program in supermax would not only be valuable to these prisoners, but would also provide material for an article to help me earn tenure and a permanent position at the university.”

Larry sits talking to Bates about King Richard the Second in Macbeth. He is reflecting on Richard’s imprisonment. He says, “Old boy, Richard, was right.” Bates asks him, “About what?” Larry says, “Pacing. We all do it. Man! Where does Shakespeare get this insight? Everybody does it, even if they don’t acknowledge it,” Larry explained. “Just like animals. When you lock an animal in a cage, for a while it just sits there and waits, but over time, once it accepts its confinement, it starts pacing, and that’s when caregivers start worrying. When tigers start to pace, it’s taken the wild out of them. The psychological shift is happening. We do the same thing. After the novelty wears off, we start pacing.”

“But why does everyone pace?” Larry asks, more of himself than of Bates, and then he answers his own question. “I think it has to be attached to what goes on while pacing – exactly what King Richard is doing, peopling his world, playing out fantasies, making this moment, this time, mean something. You’re definitely doing as he’s doing, you’re peopling the world, and while pacing!”

Bates asks Larry, “Pacing where?” She peers into Larry’s seven-by-nine-foot cell, thinking how bored she would get walking in circles on the quarter-mile track back on campus. Larry says, “It’s five steps, from one end of the cell to the other.” He started walking from the back wall to the front of the cell, counting aloud with each step: “One, two, three, four, five.” He turned around, still counting: “One, two, three, four, five.” He returned to the cell door. “Man, I’ve counted it a million times!”

Bates concludes her book with an anecdote about counting her footsteps as she leaves her house one morning: “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…” She thinks about Larry in solitary confinement as he paces, realizing she has taken fifty consecutive steps, stopping in front of a pontoon boat moored at a dock. She realizes that after spending more than ten years in supermax segregation, Larry Newton had finally broken out of his prison. Not the prison of concrete and steel, but the prison of self-destructive ways of thinking. The only prison that really matters. Spending ten years in the supermax taught Bates to recognize that Larry was right: despite having the liberty that he will never have, we all put ourselves into “so many prisons.”

Shakespeare Saved My Life is an amazing and thought-provoking book. As I sat reading, I could not help but be transported back inside the huge stone walls of the State Correctional Institute at Rockview, where I spent three years of my life, beginning at age nineteen. I am grateful for the opportunity to earn 63 college credits and an associate’s degree from Pennsylvania State University during my stay at “The Greystone Hotel.” I left the prison six months early, to a pre-release center in Scranton, PA where I had been accepted to a four-year Health and Human Services degree program at the University of Scranton, with an emphasis on psychology and counseling. Much good has come of that time. Although it took me a long time to finally get clean and sober, everything has been, as they say, grist for the mill.

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A Review of “The Arsonist” by Sue Miller

Sue Miller is the best-selling author of such novels as The Lake Shore Limited, The Senator’s Wife, Last in the Forest, The World Below, While I Was Gone, and The Good Mother. Her short-story Inventing the Abbotts became a major motion picture starring Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Keaton.  The Arsonist is Sue Miller’s eleventh novel. I was drawn in by the line, “Later, Frankie would remember the car speeding past in the dark as she stood at the edge of the old dirt road. She would remember that she had been aware of the smell of smoke for a while.”

It’s interesting to note that The Senator’s Wife and Lake Shore Limited took place during very complex times, in urban settings, where The Arsonist is set in Rural New Hampshire where everything is supposed to be about neighbors and closeness and safety. Pomeroy is the type of town where they hold an annual gathering called The Fourth of July Tea. Grown-ups dressed in their church clothes. Children made to dress up too. For Pomeroy, the event was the official start of summer.  Frankie Rowley has come home from Africa where she was relentlessly involved in relief work. After 15 years, she’s exhausted by the moral implications of how relief work is brokered, and brokenhearted by the end of a relationship with a married man. Craving time to re-calibrate her life, Frankie imagines she’ll enjoy “an easy and very American happiness.” She’ll eat long meals with her retired parents and sleep late in the bedroom “she’d had every summer since she was a child.”

But she has come home to a time of trouble.  Someone in the community is setting fire to houses belonging to “summer people.” The arsonist incinerates more than a dozen houses in this small town, burning away a sense of tranquility and trust along with buildings and furniture. Townsfolk soon feel divided. There are the homestead folk who live in Pomeroy year-round, then there are “those others” who come to town once a year and stay for a mere four months, but who want an equal voice in the town’s business. Are the fires being set by someone who despises the seasonal dwellers? Or are the crimes being carried out by a volunteer firefighter who loves the thrill of fire. Miller isn’t dogmatic on the theme of class, and she ultimately leaves it unresolved, but she’s interested in the friction between modest folks who maintain the town and “chatty, self-assured summer people” who expect it to remain an accommodating setting for their leisure.

Miller explores the way illness strains a relationship and exposes cracks that happier times kept hidden. Frankie’s father, Alfie, is a retired college professor and lover of books. As Alfie drifts into dementia, Frankie’s mother realizes that her loveless marriage is becoming a different kind of prison — one constructed of burden and guilt. Frankie must figure out the ways her parents still need her, or, maybe they don’t.  Miller excels at portraying the manner in which people connect and fail to connect. By contrast, her resolution of the arson mystery — which is really no resolution at all — is less than satisfying. On a thematic level, though, “The Arsonist” boldfaces its points. Miller captures all the complicated nuances of a family in crisis. The book provides a setting that allows us to watch the internal crumbling of Frankie’s family against the backdrop of a typical, quiet New England town in the grips of terror, realizing that times are changing. Distrust of one’s neighbors has come to small-town America.

The Arsonist tells a compelling and intriguing story that is well worth your time.