Incoming students at St. Lawrence University in northern New York state choose First Year colleges according to theme, “living and learning communities” which introduce them to college-level reading, writing, and speaking skills but which are focused on a common area of interest. Last fall, the 12 students of Sprague College and I examined America’s incarceration crisis, driving 20 miles to the medium security Riverview Correctional Facility to study alongside 8 incarcerated men who also earned college credit for the course. Dialogue was at the heart of the enterprise, as were 4 works of literary nonfiction by James Baldwin, Angela Davis, John Edgar Wideman, and Beverly Lowry.
What follows are the responses of all 20 students (inside and out) to Lowry’s Crossed Over, her account of her friendship former Texas Death Row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, executed in 1998.
Editor’s Note: entries have been lightly edited for clarity, but are otherwise intact to the students’ responses. We have deliberately not identified which students are inside and which are outside. We publish the first half this week; the second half will follow next week.
A child does not choose what kind of environment they will grow up in, and because of this they should not be held accountable for their learned actions. This is exactly the case author Beverly Lowry makes for convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker in the book Crossed Over. Karla lacks a genuine role model in her early life and therefore develops a criminal lifestyle oriented around drugs. The drugs force Karla to act in unimaginable ways. Instead of the legal system taking into account the way Karla was raised and learning about her situation so they can figure out how to properly nurture children in the future, they simply take the easy way out and sentence her to death. Through Lowry’s telling of the story of Karla Faye, she is able to humanize Karla in the way that the media and public did not. Lowry’s take on her story makes up for the total lack of empathy demonstrated in every other aspect of Karla’s life, as well as the lack of empathy shown to criminals in our justice system.
Lowry describes how Karla was younger than ten years old when she smoked her first blunt. Most ten year olds do not even know what marijuana is and would not pick smoking as their activity of choice. But, when older kids and your sisters are doing it, how was naïve Karla supposed to know that is was not right? When her mother found out instead of scolding her, Karla’s mother did not hesitate to show her ten-year-old daughter how to “roll a joint just perfect” (Lowry 115). This was followed by Karla shooting up heroine at ten years old with her sister’s boyfriend. Again, another older role model instilling the goodness of drugs into her young brain. Karla, as a preteen did drugs because, “she [liked] the way drugs made her feel,” and lacked a parental figure that punished her illegal drug use (Lowry 117). Lowry mentions two role models that let Karla down to show the toxic environment that was inescapable. She was simply doing what everyone else that surrounded her was, and therefore as a preteen developed an addiction that would last about fourteen years and only be stopped when Karla was taken into custody at age twenty-four. It is important that Lowry includes Karla’s up bringing so the reader can relate her story back to some of the good and bad role models in their lives. This connection made by the reader is very valuable for us to understand the impact someone’s environment has on their decisions.
In Lowry’s retelling of her conversations with Karla, she mentions Karla’s admission that on the night of the pickaxe murder, “there was no formal plan to kill anyone” (Lowry 47). Karla or Danny did not intend to kill Jerry Dean and his pool party lover, but because they were so high off speed, when they found these two in bed together, grabbing a pickaxe seemed like the only logical decision. One can see that it was merely the drugs that allowed Karla to carry out this harsh murder because Lowry allows us to follow the thought path of the moment. It’s easy to say yes and no from a distance but in the living, present it is not as simple. This allows the reader to empathize with Karla and see her as a human and not just as a criminal.
Karla was forced to face the person that she had become on drugs while on Death Row. This is the point at which we as readers meet her, via Lowry’s writing. She is at a turning point. While on death row and clean from drugs, Karla discovers who she is and what she could have been through finding Jesus. She is a changed woman who now lives a Christian life. A young 10-year-old surrounded by others who lived and seemed to be thriving off drugs could not have turned away from this life for obvious reasons. So why should the clean, and therefore morally changed Karla still be tried like she is the same person? Lowry makes it a point to include the transformation undergone by Karla, so the reader can get to know the same Karla that she did, and not the pickaxe murderer that the media knew.
Lowry even went through her own internal struggle while getting to know Karla, which also mimics the readers struggle. Lowry had a preconceived notion of what Karla would be like, but met with her anyway. Much like how we as readers imagine criminals one way, especially when the news does not include background stories or circumstances, but just lists the cold-hard facts of the crime committed. The justice system showed no sympathy for Karla’s upbringing. But through Lowry’s friendship with her we are able to get to know this woman, not for her crime, but for her character. Blaming Karla for her crime is taking the easy way out. With the information that Lowry has provided about Karla’s upbringing and addiction, one can humanize this woman and can looked beyond the title “pickaxe murderer.”
Lowry gives us a glimmer of hope by mentioning what homicide detective J.C. Mosier says about Karla and her case. This man worked on Karla’s case, believes in the death penalty, and yet does not believe that Karla’s life should be taken away. This is because he does not think Karla is a fundamentally bad person, much like Lowry and her readers. Instead he states, “She never had a chance from the start. There was no way for her to go but bad” (Lowry 14). He took the time to understand her situation and look at Karla’s circumstances. Although Mosier could not stop Karla from being executed, Lowry includes this to show an important step in the right direction that should be taken in all cases. Lowry highlights the issue that one person’s whole life is dictated by one mistake. In this case, Karla was not in control of what kind of sister, parents or lifestyle was placed in front of her when growing up. One can see through Lowry’s personal relationship with Karla that when the drugs were finally taken away from her, the real women was not a pickaxe murderer. Through reading the book Crossed Over the reader is exposed to a whole other perspective of convicted felons that would not be made possible by simply reading the newspaper. This book serves an important purpose in showing that the circumstances surrounding people affect their actions, realizing the skew of media portrayal, and acknowledging the good that exists in everyone.
As humans, we depend on each other to exist. We are a species of interdependence, who with this understanding can come together to achieve much more than one can imagine independently and that is how many great accomplishments are reached. People operating and coexisting in harmony can amount to immeasurable achievements breaking through all obstacles and barriers. Family is the foundation where these skills are learned and developed for many, but unfortunately some people do not have parents, role models or guiding individuals with this understanding who will teach the young to work together in an interdependent manner toward positive goals. Because families are so interdependent and parents are such profound role models, parents who make poor choices can have a profound negative influence on their children. There can be people who don’t have much interdependence and are mostly on their own. The lack of this kind of positive influence can result in people’s lives spinning out of control.
Beverly Lowry who wrote the story of Karla Faye Tucker and the gruesome murders she engaged in, depicts the profound impact parents have on their children and the outcome of their lives. Karla is the epitome of the worst that can happen in the absence of good parental role models, when raising children. Despite her parental role models, when raising children. Despite her parents divorcing they should have worked together and limited their negative influences. Many of these influences that shaped Karla’s life come from that of her mother’s selfish actions. This exemplifies the opposite of positive interdependence and influence upon a child. The actions of parents are the key influence on the behavior of a child.
There were many elements that shaped Karla’s life from early on and influenced her in a negative manner. Throughout her life there are aspects that contributed to her actions, receiving the sentence of capital punishment and the loss of her life. Aspects such as living an unconventional childhood, lack of guidance, derogatory talk, abuse, drug addiction, and prostitution. Lowry writes of Karla telling her experience at Cainy Creek.
“Well when I was about 8 yrs. old my daddy taught me and my sisters how to drive the boat up and down the lake in front of the bay house. I really enjoyed it and every morning I would get up before anyone in the house and put my swim suit on and go jump in the boat and drive it about three miles up the lake (the lake curved all the way, actually it was a creek I think) and gas it up and drive back to our pier and get my sisters and we would pull each other on the skis all day long!” (113-114)
Karla’s father talking badly of her mother while she lived with him and his absence, being out on a ship, working for extended periods of time, exhibits aspects of the cycle throughout Karla’s life.
He didn’t want to send Karla Faye to live with Carolyn Moore, he knew what his ex-wife was up to, but Karla was strung out, shooting up, getting into fist fights getting kicked out of school while busy working the docks at all hours. How much worse could it get? (120)
Karla witnessed her mother use drugs and thought nothing of experimenting with drugs herself. Even going so far as shooting heroin at the age of ten, although her mother didn’t use heroin at the time. Eventually her mother started shooting heroin as well. Either using heroin or prostitution most likely result in her contracting hepatitis. Karla’s actions and decisions only became worse as part of the further downward spiral of her life, up to this point and especially after her mother died. Her mother’s death turned Karla into an emotionally cold person. Before her mother’s death, she impacted Karla’s life negatively by an immense amount, during most of her adolescent life. Lowry writes of these events, leading the reader to make conclusions that the way Karla’s parents influenced her resulted in the formation of habits and committing actions that brought about the terrible conviction of murder.
Debi Bullard mentions the first time she smoked dope was with mama Carolyn.
Debi Bullard, a junior high buddy of Karla’s, says “I loved going to mama Carolyn’s. It was exciting there. I mean, compared to Larry’s house. And, well, compared to mine. Mama Carolyn was a high dollar whore. That’s exactly what she was, a high dollar whore. She ran a good business. She dressed her girls in good clothes. It’s hard raising three daughters. She knew how to run a business. I loved that lady. I smoked my first dope with mama Carolyn.”
A separate occasion emphasizing the negative influences on Karla and even her friends is illustrated when both Karla and Debi were at mama Carolyn’s house:
One Saturday when she was about thirteen, Debi says she was at mama Carolyn’s in bed with the covers up watching cartoons- it was Saturday afternoon, which she knows for sure because she remembers which cartoons she was watching. “Mama Carolyn came in and said ‘Debi, there’s a man out here will pay two hundred fifty dollars for you, if you want to. It’s up to you.’ When I didn’t say anything, she said ‘Baby, you don’t have to. It’s up to you.’ I said absolutely not, and she left. I pulled the covers back up and went on watching cartoons.” I asked Debi Bullard why she said no. “I was scared. I was a virgin, and I was scared shitless.” (121)
These questions are a direct representation of the strong negative influence of drug use and prostitution that Carolyn had on the children around her. This contributes to Karla becoming who she was and her life experiences. Karla was always very defensive of her family, saying her mother wouldn’t influence a girl in that way. Karl says she idolized her, which played a part in the strength of her influence. She was even defensive of her friends and once punched Debi in the face to attempt to persuade her from using heroin, even though she used the drug herself. Karla was always a tough girl fighting and hurting people. The protection of Debi goes even further after she was bat by her boyfriend Jerry Lynn Dean. This incident and him stabbing her dead mother’s picture developed into a hatred for him. These were all influencing factors that led Karla and her boyfriend Danny Garrett to commit the murders of Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton.
Karla, her boyfriend Danny, and Jimmy Leibrant, were hyped on drugs such as speed and perhaps other substances and looking for something to do. Danny devised a plan and began drawing the layout to Jerry Dean’s house. This was the beginning of a plan to rob him for his Harley and all the parts. They had set and ingrained in their subconscious minds that they would kill him if he woke up because they talked of offing him if he did, regardless of whether they were kidding or not. They were just supposed to stake the house out. They entered Jerry’s house and he said, “What’s going on?” Once they heard his voice it sealed his fate and death became inevitable as well as the taking of Deborah’s life because she was there at that time and place.
Karla committed these horrendous acts leading to the death of two people as a part of this cycle of violence, drug addiction and living outside the guidelines of the law. This cycle stems back to the earliest years of her childhood and was a constant throughout her upbringing. Her disdain for the conventions of life combined with all these other influencing factors, in which the majority of them were taught and learned from her parents. This is what directed her life and pushed her outside the limits of society, into a state of lawlessness. In my opinion, her parents did not take the initiative to work together with interdependence; even though they divorced for the greater good of their children, they should have worked together. This contributed to the bad behavior and habits that Karla had learned, resulting in her tragic outcome. The manner in which Lowry writes persuades her audience to make this inference. Due to the lack of a better example of habits and behavior by role models and all the different negative influences, Karla’s life reached a reached a point of no return. Although she embraced positive change and growth on death row. This is why it is so important that the actions of parents must demonstrate a positive example for children because the influence of their behavior greatly effects the outcome of children around them.
Crossed Over is like a phone call that I reluctantly answer, from a stranger ranting and raving frantically about some insane correlation between two lives that I have no interest in understanding… until suddenly, I do. It is at this point that the phone cuts out leaving me with nothing but a dial tone and one thought, “What the fuck just happened?” I wish I could speak to Beverly Lowry. Never have I read a book and finished with more question than when I started. Perhaps that is what is the greatest triumph of this book… or its greatest fault. The poet is the one who can live longest with uncertainty but the average reader cannot survive long in an unsure environment. Her book does accomplish one thing, though… it doesn’t get thrown back on the shelf when you are done reading, it remains in your hand as some familiar memento that has suddenly become alien right before your eyes… What is this thing and what is the meaning of its existence?
In the acknowledgements, it says that Karla participated in the book because she thought it would help Beverly. Is this book therapy for Beverly’s loss? Lowry’s own words say, “In time, I think—despite Plexiglas and all the other barriers meant to come between us—we both crossed over” (Lowry Ackn.). Beverly Lowry never makes clear her personal journey, where did she cross over to and from where? In a chapter titled “Forgiveness Mercy” Beverly maybe inviting us into her reason for writing this book. It is located conveniently at the end of the book even though it is describing her first meeting with Karla. Chronologically, this chapter should be at the beginning of the book and the fact that it is at the end makes one wonder if it was placed there as some sort of coming-to-a-realization for Lowry. In this chapter Karla asks a poignant question. She asks how Beverly would feel if they found the man who killed her son and said, “oh, but he’s changed, he’s a new person now. See how good he is? ‘How would you feel?’ (Lowry 232).” It is highly possible that Lowry’s son’s death was an accident and that the person didn’t even know they had hit someone. It was possibly a “wide-load” or some object hanging out the back of a truck as her son’s ribs were badly broken from an impact high up on his body (Lowry 231). In answer to Karla’s question, Beverly says “I don’t know… I have to tell you, I don’t know” (Lowry 233). I ask myself, “how can Beverly show love to a confessed murderer and not to a person who may have killed by accident?” Families of a murdered relative are often told that the way to make peace with their loss is to forgive the killer. Perhaps this book was Lowry’s attempt to find it within herself to forgive the person responsible for her son’s death.
In the final chapter “Snapshots”, Lowry speaks of forgiveness, further elaborating on my thesis that this book is an attempt to forgive her son’s killer (Lowry 244-245). I believe this book failed to accomplish what it set out to do. In Beverly’s own words, “I have thought often of that question Karla asked at the end of my first to Mountain View—…,” and “… Forgiveness is at issue, Mercy, the right of one human being to hold another accountable, and to judge.” “It doesn’t happen, I think; we don’t have the right to forgive or avenge. To one another, we offer aspirins. There’s little else to give.” These quotes are on page 244, seven paragraphs before the very last word in Crossed Over, and they paint a sad picture. They say that, when you fear/hate something that the best way to eradicate that fear/hate is to educate yourself about it, look it right in the eyes and the after looking at, talking to, learning about and loving a confessed killer, Beverly still has not found the strength to forgive the killer of her own son.
Beverly Lowry’s Crossed Over, writes an intriguing book about the life and death of Karla Faye Tucker, the woman executed in Texas for a cold blooded double murder. Lowry’s take, is one compromised by friendship and a certain infatuation with Karla. All that aside, Lowry does a phenomenal job creating a level of sympathy for Karla felt by the reader. Karla was a girl who at the young age of ten years old did heroin for the first time, and her whole life, from her upbringing to the time she was arrested, was plagued buy drugs, prostitution, and violence. It was easy to sympathize with Karla as a reader, and with Lowry due to the death of her son, which was a cause in her going to visit Karla in the first place. It might be easy to despise Karla for what she had done, while the two victims were sleeping, all for some type of grudge held against Jerry Dean. Although Karla was a reformed person she never apologized for her actions, was being able to find God enough for Karla?
In the book it is apparent that since the time that Karla entered the Mountain View facility she has found God, and has since regretted what she has done, all due to the fact of confessing her sins. Lowry states, “Karla Faye’s ability to rehabilitate herself in a completely controlled environment—jail in other words—and become a useful citizen, probably for the first time in her life” (Lowry 178). Everyone believed Karla was a reformed person, even her psychiatrist who happened to be a member of Karla’s family which I feel makes her argument tainted, believed Karla was reformed. I want to question whether finding God was enough for Karla Faye Tucker (obviously it was for her). In court she never apologized for her actions, and only regretted them years later. I have a hard time believing that if Karla felt her actions were wrong. She was high at the time of the murder, so it was not her normal self-committing the crime. Once her trip was over and she realized what she had done I believe she was perfectly fine with her actions, because of her hatred for Jerry Dean for threatening her best friend Shawn. I assume this because we do not read about any account of her saying otherwise.
When Karla was carrying out the murder, she stated that she orgasmed during the event. Killing gave Karla a rush, a certain feeling that no man could have ever given her. If someone were to feel so happy during a murder, which gave them a feeling so great that they had never felt it before, how could they eventually say that they wish they had not done it, through finding God? Karla feels that it is enough that God forgave her because once she is executed she will go to a better place. There she will be free of all her sins. Karla never apologized for killing Deborah and Jimmy, and never specifically stated that she regrets what she has done. The only action she took was to find God and be forgiven. Is finding God enough? I do not think that finding God is enough of an apology. I do believe that someone can find God and change the kind person they are, but I do not believe finding God should be used as a form of apology, in the sense that Karla used it. By the time Karla was killed by lethal injection, I believe she was a reformed person, but I also believe she was at peace with what she had done, not because she had found God, but because she believed she had done no wrong, the killing was justified, and she felt good while doing it.
I believe that if Karla Faye Tucker was a man who committed a pic axe murder, I would not be writing this paper. But Karla Faye Tucker was a woman, and society seems to sympathize with women more instead of men, (but that is an argument for another paper, another day). Finally, I do believe Karla had a deep reason for becoming a pick axe murderer, even if she did not know at the time of the killing, because of her state of being. She did it to put an end to the frustration she felt for the way Jerry Dean treated her best friend Shawn. Karla Faye Tucker may have found God, but she was at peace with the crime that she committed.
People who get on in this world are people who get up and look for circumstances to define their lives and find the meaning of the life. There is no doubt that the meaning of the life is a vague phrase and it is determined by people’s birth and growing environment. Karla Faye is a girl who murders two people with a pickax and gets death penalty but grows in the prison. Lowry is an ordinary writer who lost her son in a car incident. However, I admire these women a lot because of their personal traits and their growth during the adversity.
First of all, Lowry’s attitude toward the life is brave and optimistic. As a mother, Lowry is tortured because of her son’s death and she doesn’t want to accept her son’s death at first. She almost loses the hope to live and work: “I had lain on the couch for days, not changing clothes, hardly lifting my head, just lying there, a person who felt she no longer had edges to define her, who felt more like a cracked and spilled raw egg than a person, a person gone from the world as she knew it” (Lowry 19). However, as a woman she has a strong will to survive, so Lowry visits Karla in the prison every month, firmly, no matter that others suggest that she should not enter a prisoner’s life. They talk about their life events, share personal experiences and learn from each other. Finally, she comes out from the pain of losing relatives and walks to a new life: “In the dark, I make my accommodations. I don’t have to worry about Peter turning into a state boy, I don’t have to try to figure out how to be a good mother to him; Peter is dead” (Lowry 20). Lowry feels relief about her son’s death. She understands that to love a dead person is not to be sluggish and feel guilty. The right way is to keep him in one’s heart, nurse the grievance and live happily and bravely for him because the life is still wonderful. Also, Karla is an innocent girl, despite being a brutal murderer. She is sagacious and has learned quickly to adapt to the life in prison: “When I apologize for having left the quarters in the car, Karla quickly reassure me. It’s fine, she says; really, she isn’t thirsty, it doesn’t matter. Karla Faye does a lot of reassuring and righting for balances- a quickly learned adaptive reflex, crucial to establishing a tolerable prison life” (Lowry 26).
Because of tragic stories in her early life and betrayal from men, she is on an illegal road. Karla feels desperate about her life and finally fails to find the balance of the society so she revenges hopelessly: “So, I looked, I seen a pickax against the wall. I reached over and grabbed it and swung it and hit him in the back with it, four or five times” (Lowry 58). It is not hard to imagine how helpless but firm she is that time. However, Karla awakens on the death row. The true meaning of return of the prodigal son is priceless. Karla lives with an enthusiastic attitude in her end of days and faces the death row calmly. She continues to contact with the outside of the world and help innocent kids who just like her before:
Karla had had a nice life in the tank with her friends. She had her classes, her bible studies, her work teaching others. Wanting to do more, more, and still more, she sends cards to my nieces, knits muffles, crochets me a wildly colored sun visor, sends one to a friend of mine. Writes letters to kids with drug problems. ‘if you only knew,’ she says, ‘how much I want to help people. If you only knew what a gut-wrenching need I have to help people.’” (Lowry 187)
Maybe struggle is the only way to guide people to understand the definition of the life. In the prison, Karla gives up the drugs and rehab to a healthy person because she finds the meaning of her life.
To sum up, Crossed Over is a moving account of an unlikely but profound and genuine friendship created in the confines of a visiting room on death row. Two women have similar tragic fates but find relict with each other in the end. Karla’s innocent beauty and Lowry’s persistence attract readers to think about the meaning of lives.
When I read Crossed Over I couldn’t shake the question of how much change is attainable. The way people act and react to different circumstances, or how someone’s life can change in an instant, for better or worse. It vexes me that I’ll never know if Karla changed because she genuinely wanted to. What kind of person would Karla be if she was released? Would she continue to maintain her positive transformation or would she fall back into the same lifestyle that she grew up on? The same can be said about Peter; would he be a changed man if he was incarcerated for a while or would he have gotten worse? These questions will never be answered, only pondered through time. This book goes as far as changing the reader into questioning him/herself of all the “what if” life throws at you. I know for me, I asked myself what would my life be if I wasn’t incarcerated. It’s difficult to figure out but all I know, is if it wasn’t for this experience, I wouldn’t be sharing my thoughts on paper. Me and Lowry share similar dilemmas, if it wasn’t for Peter’s death she would have never wrote this great book or met Karla. But who’s to say that isn’t a bad thing?
Lowry describes Karla through the book as a “loving girl woman” that recognizes her mistake, but not once in all 245 pages does she apologize for her crime. This makes the reader question the legitimacy of her “change.” I guess Karla said it best: “You bump up against the unthinkable thing, the very thing you could never, never tolerate, and surprisingly most of all, yourself you adjust; you try to find a way” (199). I can try to challenge Karla’s authenticity but I would only be fighting a losing battle, because I consider myself proof that reform is possible.
There are two sides to change, good and bad, and Lowry has experienced both. This gave her the opportunity to share with us the true insight of reform; to see things not for what they seem but for what they can be. Karla’s life gave her all the tools to build herself into the situation she’s in, but it also gave her the greatest motive to change. The book isn’t all focused on Karla, though readers can’t ignore the change Lowry made a well. Like the way she views the prison system or law enforcement. Lowry refers to another prison as “dicks” (188), this is due to the fact that it’s because of them that Karla is getting dehumanized in prison. When Lowry describes people in the book their description depends if they are against Karla or for her. She described Jerry Lynn Dean as a “pussy” (31), him being the main reason Karla is in jail makes Lowry resent him and print him in a negative way; as opposed to Rebecca Lewis, who was the chaplain worker that helper Karla turn her life around. Lowry managed to befriend a murderer and share her life with her, all the visit she made and pictures she diligently took, now that her life involved Karla. Lowry’s life changes just as much as Karla’s did when she lost her son. Peter will always be her eternal bond with change and Karla is her was of accepting it.
Karla Faye Tucker was born to be wild. In Crossed Over by Beverly Lowry, Lowry does her own investigating into whether the wild Karla Faye Tucker was also born to be a pickax murderer. On the night of June 13th 1983, Karla Tucker and Danny Garrett murdered Jerry Lynn Dean and his lover. Fascinated by the petite, curly-haired woman smiling in the magazine article which described her vicious crime, Lowry craved to know more about the woman sitting behind the camera. With regular meetings at the prison, Lowry dug deep into Karla’s past while forming a unique and unlikely bond with Karla. Often interrupting Karla’s story to relate back to her own life Lowry is often criticized by our class for these unnecessary diversions from the main plot line. These diversions, however, are necessary because in order to fully understand anyone, human beings relate back to what they know. It is an attempt to feel a fraction of what the person in front of them is claiming to feel or have felt. The reader cannot be critical of these inclusions for it is the most basic and most powerful need to connect and without these inclusions Lowry would not have been able to explain the deeply troubling tale of Karla Faye Tucker as well as she did.
Lowry writes, “If Peter hadn’t been killed, I would not have made the first trip up to see Karla Faye”(5). Most frequently using the tragic death of her son Peter to relate, the reader is able to understand through this information about the authors life why she is investing the time she Is into this case. Lowry lets the reader and also Karla by sharing these details of her own life. Killed in a hit and run, Lowry experienced her own tragedy which lets her see Karla’s tragedy of her own life more clearly. These details of Peter and Lowry’s own mourning after, explains to the reader why but also how she is able to sit with Karla hour after hour dissecting Karla’s tales. Faced with Karla’s story, which differs significantly from that of Peter’s in terms of gruesome nature, any human would struggle to directly relate and see where Karla was in her own head that night of June 13th. I believe that this trauma in Lowry’s life was the most relevant thing and so it makes sense that she so often looks inward to Peter’s story to relate.
Peter had a good home and a solid family. He had money and stability, so why would he try to stray? These questions that inhabited Lowry’s mind about her own son lead her to know which questions to ask. Lowry was involved and loving throughout Peter’s upbringing and yet her stable presence may have contributed to the distance and rebellion he desperately was seeking out by the time he was in the 5th grade. In asking these key questions, Lowry learned that Karla, too was trouble by the time she was 11. Karla, however, was a much different type of trouble. She was born into a type of trouble that her mother promoted by giving Karla the keys to the wild ways. “There [was] no one in charge. Nine was Karla’s best year, then it was over—the same as it seemed to be for Peter after the fifth grade” (117). Karla was selling her body for money and using crack by the time she was ten. Knowing the instances in Lowry’s life that have changed her for good, the death of her son, the reader can feel like they know her and therefore understand why she is digging into certain topics more. Through referencing Peter and Lowry’s thoughts, the reader sits in on the mental processes going on within Lowry’s head to know the things to say and the questions to ask that will uncover more of Karla’s story.
This memoir is successful because the reader understands Lowry while she is understanding Karla. Lowry can visualize the trouble, the chaos, the damage Karla caused because her own son had created a similar yet lesser version of that same madness in her own life. To be critical of this inclusion is to be critical of human interaction and the mental processes that occur when individuals are faced with a foreign story from another individual. Whether it is using the death of a family member or her own relationship with her mother to try to connect, Lowry draws from inside. Through her attempt to relate, she is then able to ask the right questions and write a more thorough and compassionate case for Karla Faye Tucker.
“Executed” read the front page of The New York Daily News in bold, white capital letters across the top, a picture of Karla Faye Tucker smiling below it. The paper was published on February 4, 1998, the day after the execution. Karla Faye Tucker’s crime was inevitably captivating and that perhaps was her biggest misfortune. As Lowry stated, “When a woman kills it’s news. When a woman kills unmercifully and with such a weapon, it’s big news” (Lowry 64). Crossed Over brings you to the precipice of a young woman’s life and forces you to confront your most sacred thoughts about redemption. In this memoir, Beverly Lowry explores the life of Karla Faye Tucker before and after the murder, perhaps as an appeal to save Karla’s life or as an attempt to better understand the death of her son. Regardless, it is impossible to read this book and not notice the piercingly unconventional life of Karla Faye Tucker. Through immersion into her conversations with Beverly Lowry, the reader inevitably sees the disadvantages of Karla’s upbringing and as Lowry looks even closer she sees that Karla never stood a chance at saving her own life. It is interesting to note the differences in the way Beverly Lowry tells Karla’s story and how Karla’s story is told by people in court as it hints to the nature of their appeals and their use of rhetoric.
Beverly Lowry tells Karla’s story at times abruptly, giving it a raw and very genuine sense. Her vivid descriptions of the room she’s in and the events leading up to her conversations with Karla take you through her experience every step of the way. When Lowry mentions Karla she often goes to great lengths to humanize her and make her real to the reader perhaps to alleviate the sense of viciousness and evil that comes with labeling someone a “pickax murder.” In Lowry’s words, “Karla was luminous, beautiful, calm” (xvi). Lowry wants the reader to look into Karla’s eyes and see that there’s more to her than one would like to believe, that’s probably why there’s a picture of Karla with her right hand placed gently below her chin with her eyes locking on to the reader. It seems that when people outside of Beverly Lowry want to describe Karla, they refrain from using detail as if the fact that she murdered a man with a pickax is all you the information necessary to pass judgement on Karla. Initially, Lowry is guilty of this herself: “My heart dropped. I did not want to go soft on this girl, I did not want to get attached, I want to keep Karla Faye Tucker at a safe remove” (Lowry 23). It is visible that as Lowry’s closeness and affection for Karla grows, so does the extent to which she tries to humanize her. Lowry states, “most of the time when I am talking to Karla, I forget. She is who she is now to me, this warm, loving girl, my friend. The murder seems like some chapter in a worn old book. It is Karla herself who remind me: What I did was horrible” (173).
Beverly Lowry walks the reader through the life of Karla Faye Tucker. She mentions her dreams and aspirations as a child to be a football player. Her childhood memories like her living at the bay house and learning how to drive the boat with her father. She mentions the role her parents played in her life, her getting kicked out of school, how she developed an addiction for sex and drugs at a very young age. It is evident that through Lowry’s depiction of Karla Faye Tucker, Lowry considers her much more than a murderer. In her conversations with Karla she not only seeks detail but understanding of what it must feel like to be Karla. In a conversation, they had regarding Karla’s time on trial Lowry states, “I asked her how it was to sit there” (171). Searching for a way to bridge herself to Karla, through the glass divide between them.
The opposite occurs when Karla is mentioned by someone other than Lowry in court. Lowry makes it very clear that the Texas Justice Department and several individuals were aligned against Karla, and that she was up against immense odds. One of the attorneys representing Karla said, “The drugs were still in her. She didn’t care about anything. I didn’t want to take the case” (Lowry 158). Describing Karla in a very crude and emotionless way. Whenever Karla is mentioned in regard to her court case she is only described as the Karla who wielded the axe and plunged it into a man’s back or the Karla who had been on drugs and alcohol for three days prior. Rarely is Karla mentioned outside the context of the murder of Jerry Lynn Dean. Patricia Lyko’s (the judge appointed to Karla’s case) was asked about Karla on trial and the only thing she could remember about her was the white cross she wore around her neck. As if that is all she was: a cross-wearing murderer. Karla’s attorney said, “Karla was guilty, no matter which way it happened” (Lowry 176). The people involved in Karla’s case never bringing in to context her humanity the way that Lowry does; perhaps as a way for Lowry to weaken the legitimacy of the oppositions claims by highlighting the lack of profundity to which those in favor of killing Karla actually went to understand who she was. Beverly Lowry through her intimacy and closeness with Karla came to see the troubled girl behind the facade of a murderer. She came to understand Karla and accompany her in her struggle. Lowry’s descriptions of the perspectives of the people involved in Karla’s trial hint to the belief that crime occurs because of the desires of the individual and not the collective (society).
“Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, and begin,” Donald Bartholme once said. In the time spent reading, and re-reading Beverly Lowry’s Crossed Over, I keep finding myself conflicted between the memoirs too major concepts. First Lowry’s logical, ethical, and moral epiphany’s she comes across during her visits of famed murderer Karla Faye Tucker, and while writing on her precariously dark life. Lowry’s meetings with Karla Faye are portrayed as a look into the yin and yang of the human psyche. Lowry asks her audience to see Karla as this bubbly, captivating personality whose southern charm had not captivated Lowry, but those who were involved in her infamous 1986 pickax murder case. In her memoir, Lowry makes a good attempt at separating Karla, the murderer, and Karla, the purist, even using her arduous upbringing as a child prostitute junkie as mitigating circumstances, justifying her actions as “social conditioning.”
But what is hard to find is Lowry’s connections to Tucker’s murders as an establishing point which invoked “change” into Karla Faye, thus transforming her into the devoted Christian, whom she currently is, as a worthy candidate of clemency from what became her inevitable death sentence. I’m trying to figure out “what does it mean to truly change?” and as a reader you start to see a flaw in Lowry’s writing, though a single flaws its one that can’t be ignored which brings up the second concept that is bred from this memoir. When you read Lowry’s perception of what is advocacy and what appears to be an emotional campaign is muddled through her context and writing. Here it begins to transform into a literary version of Beaches (which I am ashamed to know about), which a good portion of this memoir is built on the plot of two broken women seeking solace. It also raises the question of Lowry’s motive for writing this memoir and even reaching out to Karla Faye in the first place. Lowry forcibly imposes connections to Karla Faye story with the story of her son who was killed in an unsolved hit and run. Though he too was a troubled youth, his troubles weren’t nearly on the same level as Karla who didn’t come from the same environment as Lowry’s son. Even when Lowry attempts to compare her experience of misusing diet pills to study with Tucker’s pre-pubescent drug addiction, it sucks all the empathetic life out of her memoir and gives the impression that Lowry is trying to “fit in” with something she couldn’t relate to. Even Lowry admits that had her son not died she would have never met up with tucker which raises the red flag on Lowry’s sudden interest in Tucker, which also in turn makes this memoir more of an emotional/therapeutic process than pure advocacy off Tucker’s freedom. Though her motives are questionable, Lowry’s ability to humanize Tucker and the ability to retell events on that night helps carry her memoir and shed a new light on a woman who is synonymous with a gruesome murder.
Beverly Lowry’s memoir will forever be associated with one of America’s oldest moral dilemmas— “should capital punishment have been completely abolished”—and what makes us take a look at those who have been impacted by it, but we also question Lowry on her ethical standings as a writer, is this a result of a therapeutic process or is this pure advocacy.
Next week, we’ll conclude with the second half of “Reading Beverly Lowry’s Crossed Over.” Stay tuned!