Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years In Solitary With The Bard: A Memoir, by Laura Bates
This is an unconventional and particularly complicated memoir. Although in terms of its length it is not a particularly demanding read at slightly over 200 pages, as a memoir this book certainly has a lot of layers to it, and these layers deserve to be taken into account. At the core of this book is a maternal relationship between a childless English professor seeking tenure and an Indiana prisoner dealing with life without parole as a result of a conviction for murder when he was a mere juvenile who becomes a passionate bardophile while in supermax. This book brings together many threads–the power of Shakespeare to inspire , the importance of respect and intellectual freedom, the benefits of education, and also the treatment of prisoners. Underlying the surface narrative of the book is a clear call for a change in attitude towards crime and punishment, whether it involves avoiding encouraging criminals among the elementary school population where habits of crime often form or whether it involves seeking to burnish one’s reputation of being tough on crime by being inhumane to criminals.
As a memoir, on one level this book is conducted through a variety of chapters, many of short length, over the course of the author’s experiences as a volunteer professor of English to the prisoner population, who she introduces to Shakespeare. This part of the narrative follows a familiar path of an idealistic teacher dealing with “tough kids” who show themselves to be ennobled through their study of great literature. The author also presents herself as having come from a disadvantaged background and through the book we see her commitment to teaching the prisoners and her desire for tenure, which she is warned by others requires her to commit more to publishing. The observations of the writer and her recording of the thoughts and striking insights of the prisoners, in particular one Larry Newton (referred by last name for the first part of the book and then by his first name once he is restored to the general population of prisoners) are designed to encourage within the reader a sense of respect for the prisoners as human beings capable of moral and intellectual development. In large part I feel this effort to be successful. This book may not be sufficient to cause a change in attitude towards educational efforts for prisoners, but any reminder that prisoners are people too is a good one.
After all, this book points out that there are many prisons. There are prisons of reputation that lead others to refuse to act with kindness and mercy, as Larry faces the vengeful spite of prison authorities who want to break him towards the end of the book. There are prisons of expectations and addictions and psychological burdens of abuse that influence people towards seeking vengeance and for earning honor through acts of violence, the sort of prisons of the mind and spirit that lead people to find themselves in physical prisons. There are also the prisons of fear and anxiety that many people–myself definitely included–find ourselves in throughout our lives as well. A great deal of the insight that is shown in this book about Shakespeare comes from the fact that Shakespeare was himself a master of understanding motivation and human psychology, giving him a credibility with all kinds of populations who in turn can examine their own lives from the familiarity with great literature. Regardless of what prisons we find ourselves in, this book reminds us that we have freedom so long as we take responsibility for what is inside of our minds and work to better our understanding and keep our spirits up. We are certainly influenced by our environment and by our experiences, but we are also free because we have the power of choice.
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