Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reading Jarvis Jay Masters

Readers of this blog know that I love to read, but even after all these years it still surprises me how rarely it is from books formally about Judaism or Jewish history that I learn the most about human nature—the book by Rabbi Teichthal that I wrote about a few weeks ago being an obvious exception—and how regularly those kinds of lessons come to me from books that appear at least prima facie to have no specific connection to my profession or my faith. I’ve been having just that kind of experience over the last few weeks while reading the two published books by Jarvis Jay Masters, an author whose name I suspect will not be at all familiar to most of you. Nor is any of you likely to meet him anytime soon because he is currently on death row in San Quentin State Prison in California. (It’s not clear that he will really be executed, however; just last year, the California Supreme Court ordered an evidentiary hearing that his supporters hope will lead to a new trial and, they further hope, to his eventual exoneration.)

I haven’t reviewed the evidence or the testimony offered the first time around, nor would my personal evaluation of either be worth much. (I certainly do believe that people whose trials can be shown after the fact not to have been fair should get new trials, but I lack the legal expertise to say with conviction whether Jarvis Masters himself falls in that category. You can however get a very clear picture of why his supporters think he absolutely does deserve a new trial at their website, But although I do not wish to comment on matters both still before the court and beyond my professional sphere of competence, I did read both his books and came away moved and touched in ways I hadn’t anticipated at all. And that is the experience what I want to tell you about today.

I came to Jarvis’ books in a slightly roundabout way. The literary agent in Manhattan that I am trying to interest in helping me sell a new novel of my own mentioned to me on the phone that she was about to be away for a week or so visiting one of her clients in California. When I asked why the client couldn’t just come to New York to see her, she told me why. And then she mentioned his name and I jotted it down. Later that morning, I was sufficiently curious to google him and learn a bit more about his story. And what I found was so compelling that I ordered both his books: Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row, published by Padma Publishing in 1997, and That Bird Has My Wings, published this year by HarperOne.

This year’s book, his second, actually treats of the earlier part of his life, the years leading up to his initial experiences in prison. And the first book, written more than ten years ago, describes his life on death row up until that time. (He was sentenced to death in 1990 and had been awaiting execution for nine years when he published Finding Freedom.) So the book treating of the earlier part of his life is the one written from the perspective of the forty-seven year old man he is today, while the one discussing his actual experiences in prison was written from the vantage point of a younger man of thirty-five. But the later book also discusses his first years in prison, so you can reasonably read them in either order.

In a sense, Masters’ story is not that extraordinary. His mother and stepfather were severely addicted to heroin. His biological father was gone even before he was born. Bounced from one foster home to another through almost his entire childhood and adolescence, his only occasional respite was when he sought refuge with one or another set of relatives, almost all of whom are described in the book as being actively engaged in one sort of criminal activity or another. By the time Masters was an adolescent, he had so thoroughly absorbed the violence, criminality, drug abuse, and incivility of his environment that his future as a thug was almost guaranteed. About all of this, Masters writes in a cool, dispassionate way, describing his progress towards prison as a series of almost natural steps that led finally to him being caught and sentenced to long-term incarceration. (He also includes a series of painful, raw chapters about life in the various establishments the State of California runs for youthful offenders in which he spent time before going to “real” jail.) And it was in such a real prison—the notorious San Quentin penitentiary—that he became, so his accusers claim, involved in the 1985 murder of a prison guard that led to his death sentence in 1990.

Along the way, however—and this is the part of the book that challenged me the most provocatively and which I found the most interesting and moving—Masters grows up. And as he leaves his adolescent self behind and finally assumes the trappings of real adulthood—including not only the formerly unrepresented qualities of shame, self-awareness, and humility, but also what certainly sounds like a true sense of responsibility and accountability—he also finds himself falling under the sway of, of all things, a Tibetan lama named Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. As Masters makes his way forward as a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism, he learns how to acquire precisely those qualities that were the most lacking in his life to that point. And by the time he finally takes the vows that appear to have sealed his formal conversion—vows neither to harm nor hurt others even at the cost of one’s own life and to attempt to end the suffering of others—he seems truly to have been transformed spiritually into a new man.

Obviously, the man is telling his own story in his own books. I don’t know him personally. I haven’t met him. Obviously, we’ve never spoken. But even if I could somehow meet him, I’m not sure I’d know how to judge the sincerity of his conversion. Is he on the level? The Bible records the prophet Samuel’s observation that an unmediated encounter with the spirit of the living God does indeed have the capacity to turn someone into a new person entirely. Has Jarvis Masters truly become such a new man? Who (other than a prophet) could possibly look into the heart of another person with anything like the kind of clarity necessary to answer such a question unequivocally? These are probably unanswerable questions, but the books are nonetheless very moving. And so, despite my natural skepticism about such things, the sincerity and clarity with which Masters writes makes me inclined to feel that here, for once, is someone who truly did grow up, who lived through the most sordid life episodes imaginable, and yet who somehow retained enough of his basic humanity to be able eventually (and under the most trying circumstances imaginable) to develop into a mensch, into someone possessed of the inner resolve to atone for the past by following a moral and kind path into the future. I suppose different readers will respond to these books in different ways. But I doubt anyone who reads them both will find him or herself unmoved by the experience. When people talk about books having the power to transform their readers, they were thinking of books like Masters’. If you have teenaged children or grandchildren, you could do a lot worse than steer them towards either or both of these books.

Especially during the holiday season, we do a lot of talking in synagogue about the power of repentance. Mostly, we mean what we say. Or at least I hope we do! But to move on from mouthing platitudes to actually accepting that an individual has the power to turn from sin and embrace a path of goodness and charity—and not to roll our eyes while saying it, or to smirk—that is a different challenge entirely. Earlier this year, I wrote about the case of Raymond Guay, a man who appeared to have undergone a similar jailhouse conversion while serving time for the most horrible crime imaginable: the abduction, attempted rape, and subsequent murder of a child. The minister in New Hampshire who, acting on his principles, took Guay into his home to help give him a new start in life was treated to intense pressure from his neighbors and congregants to get rid of him and not to allow him live in their midst. But the minister, the Reverend David Pinckney, had the courage of his convictions and refused to back down. I wrote here that I agreed in theory…but that I also couldn’t imagine inviting a man with a criminal record like Raymond Guay’s to live in my community, much less in my home. Now that I’ve read Jarvis Masters’ books, I find myself revisiting that thought…and wondering why it is, if I try to preach with such conviction each Rosh Hashanah about the infinite power of human resolve to make straight a previously crooked path in life, that I can’t actually imagine myself believing simply and easily that people can and do change…and that the power of the human will to abandon sin is unrelated to any individual’s history of prior bad acts.

The easy way out would be simply to say that I believe in the power of repentance but have no way to peer even inadequately into the heart of another, and that I therefore believe in the concept…but not in its practical application. There’s no obvious flaw in that reasoning. But if it make so much sense, why does it feels like the cheap way out, like a handy peg on which to hang my own endless doubts about the ability of any of us truly to change…and to stay changed. If any of you reads Jarvis Masters’ two books, I feel certain you’ll feel similarly challenged. I’ll be curious to know what you think. You might even come away personally transformed!

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