memoir · nonfiction

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard- Laura Bates

It isn’t often that my tired, tired brain remembers exactly where a certain book recommendation came from, but today is finally that day! The always insightful Susan from Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books (if you don’t already follow her, FOLLOW HER IMMEDIATELY, she’s fabulous!!!) recommended Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard by Laura Bates (Sourcebooks, 2013) on another one of my posts about prison- which, if you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ll know that’s one of my pet subjects. Onto the TBR list it went, and I was lucky enough that my local library had a copy (and yes, I write out constantly updated lists of what books from my TBR are available at every local library branch. Doesn’t everyone? *shoves taped glasses up nose, then snort-laughs*).

It’s hard to imagine anyone in this day and age not knowing who Shakespeare was, but that was Larry Newton, a convicted murderer housed in solitary confinement at Indiana Federal Prison. Earning her service hours and hoping to better a few lives, college professor Laura Bates created the first Shakespeare study program in a supermax prison, and it didn’t just change the inmates- it changed Laura, too.

By all counts, Larry Newton looks pretty terrible on paper (the book claims that it was never proven that Larry pulled the trigger; it makes no difference under Indiana state law, however. All that matter is that he was present and was, at the very least, an accomplice). The tragedy of his life stretches back into his childhood, where, after a beginning full of abuse and neglect, he spent years in juvenile detention centers and on the streets. Imprisoned for life at age 17, he then spent years in solitary confinement, almost never seeing another human being until Laura Bates included him in her Shakespeare in Supermax class.

Ms. Bates, who had been studying Shakespeare’s work for years, learning from some of the most well-known Shakespearean scholars, is almost immediately blown away by the insight Newton offers on plays even lifelong devotees struggle with. Far from being the uneducated monster he appears on paper, Larry Newton is sharp, asking penetrating questions, and making shrewd observations that change the way Ms. Bates sees Shakespeare and prison inmates. Along with inspiring other inmates to expand their horizons with Shakespeare’s writings, Larry writes curriculum and study guides for each and every play, guides that Ms. Bates uses not only in prison, but in her college courses as well. THAT is how astute his work is.

Under Newton’s tutelage and Ms. Bates’s supervision, the inmates rewrite Shakespearean plays and have them performed by other inmates (ones allowed in General Population), even filming videos for juvenile offenders that actually appear to reach them. The power of Shakespeare to transform lives seems almost limitless in this book, and it will have you questioning everything you know about punishment, human nature, and life in prison.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

-Walt Whitman

This Whitman quote ran through my head over and over again throughout this entire book. Nowhere is it more apparent that we as humans contain multitudes than in Larry Newton. You wouldn’t suspect that a man who is either capable of murder or of accompanying friends to a murder would also be what amounts to an absolutely brilliant scholar of Shakespeare, making stunning insights that impress not only Laura Bates but even professors more seasoned than herself, but that’s exactly what he does. No play daunts him; he dives right in, makes connections that others have failed to make, and, possibly more importantly, he takes what he’s learned and uses it to improve himself. He grows, he gains insight into his own past and his misdeeds, and he allows the Shakespearean lessons to change him for the better.

His brilliance astounds me; it also saddens me. What could he have become, what strides could he have made for humanity, who could he have been, if he had been privileged enough to live in a healthy family, if society had stepped in early on, before he went down such a devastating path? How many more Larry Newtons are out there that we’re just throwing away because they’re too poor, have been abused for too long, aren’t worth our time to try to rehabilitate? What is the world missing out on? Far too much, I fear.

This is a bittersweet book. Laura Bates works some serious magic in Supermax, but it’s not enough, it’ll never be enough as long as we as a society continue to be hellbent on the non-evidence-based, punishment-over-rehabilitation method for the people we imprison. Larry Newton, of course, has something to say to that, and not only do I agree with him, the research agrees with him one hundred percent:

We cannot risk not helping. The vast majority of prisoners are going to return home. They are going to be our neighbors and they are going to be around our loved ones. The question really comes down to: what kind of prisoner do you want living next to you? No matter how you feel about the subject, the reality is that these prisoners are indeed coming home, and you do have the power to help shape what kind of neighbor they will be. Why education? Because it is the one science that overwhelmingly works.

-Larry Newton, imprisoned for life

Sadly, Larry had to give up his pursuit of earning a college degree when, despite the sky-high mounds of evidence that it cuts recidivism rates like nothing else, Indiana axed all funding for prison college courses. It does appear that they’ve recommenced some college programs; hopefully Larry and the other Shakespeare students can continue, but how terrible to keep yo-yoing back and forth like this. What kind of neighbors are we trying to create here?

Shakespeare Saved My Life is heartbreaking, yet inspirational, and I felt as though my brain grew several sizes as I read this. The last pages were also a stark reminder to never, ever judge a person by how they look: Ms. Bates includes Larry Newton’s picture (at what seems like his request). ‘Shakespeare scholar’ isn’t the first thing that comes to mind at first glance…but why not? We contain multitudes, my friends.

Many, many thanks to Susan for recommending this one to me; I thoroughly enjoyed every page!

4 thoughts on “Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard- Laura Bates

    1. Thanks for the recommend! It really was wonderful, and it’s one of those books that I think will stick with me. I wish I had half of Larry’s skill at literary analysis!

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