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Lions Roar : January 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN jANUAry 2010 83 THAT BirD HAS MY WiNGS is a powerful narrative of a life lost on the streets, and then found again in a prison cell on San Quentin’s death row. this is not a book about guilt or innocence, but about the possibility of redemption. Jarvis Jay masters’ struggle to write his life story had many challenges, starting with his pen. Like many prisoners, he was given a floppy ink tube, a “pen filler,” rather than an ordinary hard-bodied pen. He says: I literally cursed the makeshift pen caught painfully between my fingers. there was no name I did not call it. It was not just that it hurt to hold it, but that it moved so slowly, forcing me to attend to every detail. I couldn’t write any faster than it let me; it re- fused to skim lightly over the surface as I tried to breeze past the unpronounced emotions that would crawl up my throat and fill my eyes with tears... then I began to silently challenge myself: Without anyone else having to know, I asked, how honest can I be with myself as I write all the scattered memories of my life? masters’ incisive unearthing of his past is a graceful and ulti- mately liberating story. But in what ways did prison, particularly death row, foster this reconstruction? to answer that question it’s necessary to consider the impact of incarceration and all it entails. prisons are characterized by danger and deprivation, and they promote feelings of failure, guilt, and shame. the rough, raw underbelly of the battle for survival is acted out in the cellblock, prison yard, and gym, as the subordinated population fights over limited spoils and victories. that said, prisons are also compared to monasteries because both institutions are isolated and offer long periods of time for reflection and introspection. Inmates, therefore, can assume the role of monk or gladiator, and the du- ality between prison warrior and prison monk is particularly true on death row. In that place, time endlessly stretches ahead with a crushing sameness, and yet is also running out. there is a heightened awareness of the impermanence attached to all things and experiences, and in the midst of this there can arise a vibrant search for meaning, a need to begin a process of healing. one way masters’ healing is revealed is in the way he writes about himself as a boy. He isn’t telling the reader about his boy- hood self from an external position but rather from the inside. this is not accomplished solely with skillful writing, but also in the depth of masters’ journey to connect with his childhood. masters’ life story began in a drug house with his siblings, an addicted mother, and a violent and soon to be absent father. In rags, the children roamed through the house, sleeping on urine- soaked mattresses, rarely fed or in any way nurtured or cared for. When darkness came, they gravitated to the stuffy attic dimly illuminated by a streetlamp—there was no other source of light. In masters’ words, “only now can I imagine the awful stench of our pee-stained mattresses. after urinating on them for months, we’d become immune to the smell, like a rancher to his cows.” eventually masters was removed from the house by youth services, which began a lifelong yearning to be reunited with his mother and to keep her safe from the dangers he’d witnessed while living with her. Separated from his siblings, he was placed with loving foster parents. He absorbed their nurturing and thrived in the safety and structure of their home life, but this was the only time he would have “a taste of normal.” due to his foster mother’s severe health problems, he was soon taken away and placed with an abusive foster family. after he ran away, the next stop on masters’ journey was a ju- venile detention hall. Here, briefly, his need for loving figures and a place to belong was satisfied. He excelled at sports and made a best friend, Fred, who had been badly burned by his father. Fred’s courage in the face of disfiguring scars and severe physical pain inspired in masters a sense of admiration and personal capability. eventually, masters was united with his mother’s extended family, but within this large and at times loving family, he found pHotoCourteSYoFJarVISJaYmaSterSandkatHrInSmItH ThaT Bird has My Wings The autobiography of an innocent Man on death row By Jarvis Jay masters HarperOne, 2009; 304 pp., $24.99 (cloth) revieWeD BY JeNNY PHiLLiPS Prison Monk reviews