Women Writing Lives: Pedagogy in the Archives

In the fall of 2017, I started teaching a new class. Women Writing Lives would examine a diverse selection of 20th– and 21st-century texts of women’s literary nonfiction, including radio diaries, published journals, finely wrought memoirs, essays, and – most ambitiously (from a pedagogical standpoint) – unpublished archival materials. Questions I posed in my syllabus included:

  • How do women write their lives and why?
  • What can we discern or discovers literariness of nonfiction and life-writing of all kinds?
  • What is the difference between public and private writing? Should we read these differently, and if so, then why and how?

The writing-intensive class comprised twenty students. We kicked off the semester by listening to a teenaged girl’s radio diary from the 1990s. Amanda told her coming out story and professed her love for her girlfriend in a thick Brooklyn accent. As we listened, the class marvelled at Amanda’s frankness, courage, and vulnerability in the telling of her life. We talked about editing, about narrative arcs, and whether or not this radio diary might consitute an essay or something else.

In the weeks that followed, Alice Walker’s essay, “Looking for Zora,” showed us how writers are detectives. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own demonstrated how women’s social history has determined women’s literary history and our writerly legacies. Reading Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness beside Sylvia Plath’s Journals showed us the power of editing, retrospection, and how diaries differ from memoirs. Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder took their breath away as did Louise DeSalvo’s essay, “Portrait of the Puttana as a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar.” Students shared their own examples of life-writing, wrote short analyses of the books we read, and experimented by producing bold new texts of their own in the form of diary entries or letters. Finally, having looked at women’s life-writing from all angles, we were ready to go into the archives.

The summer before the class, I spent a few days exploring the Missouri State Historical Society’s collections. For a while, I considered having the class read a homesteader’s diary and letter collection. I then sat with letters written by a female anarchist imprisoned in St. Louis, which were fascinating but somehow not right for the task at hand. In the end, I settled on the extensive collection of a Vietnam War correspondent, Ann Bryan Mariano McKay (1932-2009). McKay’s papers contained love letters to and from Frank Mariano who became her husband, adoption and immigration papers for the two orphaned Vietnamese girls who became her daughters, newspaper clippings, the daughters’ writings as they grew, snippets of memoir about the war, and (devastatingly) the records of the deaths of one of the daughters to cancer and of Frank to cardiac arrest. I found the collection utterly engrossing and deeply moving. I suspected my students would too. By way of background, I distributed a memoir-essay called “Vietnam Is Where I Found My Family” that McKay had contributed to the anthology, War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. This prepared the class for the three days we would spend in the archive.

4009 f  515 - Ann in OW office Saigon c  1967.jpgThe trick to pedagogy in the archives is not to overwhelm with too much material and not to set students loose on the collections without guidance. For successful teaching in the archives, instructors must provide structure, limits, and clear instructions. With all this in mind, I pulled together three photocopied packages for my students: one told the story of Ann’s life in the form of her letters and clippings; a second that told the story of Frank through letters and legal documents; and a third that told the story of Ann’s daughters, also through letters and official papers. I broke the class into three groups. Each received only a portion of the archive, that is, either Ann’s, Frank’s, or the daughters’ materials. Students then completed an assignment based on their particular portion of the archive. In addition to the photocopied packages (one per student), I invited the class to examine the original materials.

Over the three days in the archives, students completed the following assignment.

1) Describe your materials:

  • What is in the collection?
  • Who is the author of the collection?
  • Describer the physical characteristics of your materials. What is the paper like? Color, texture? Is it a typescript or manuscript? Is it original or a photocopy?
  • What year was it produced? Or over what time period?
  • How old was the author of these materials?

Once you have observed the materials and answered these and any other questions that come to mind, write a paragraph describing them.

2) What can you deduce from your materials? What do you know for sure?

  • Where are they from?
  • What do they tell you about their author? About her or his class, profession, life experience?
  • What story do these materials tell?

Once you have answered these questions and sat with your materials long enough to understand something about them, write a paragraph that starts: “These materials tell the story of…”

3) What questions have these materials raised for you? What more would you like to know?

  • Write a paragraph musing on the unanswered questions you have. You may list your questions but you can also speculate as to what you think the answers to these questions might be. Use your imagination.

Once they had completed and submitted the assignment, students wrote a reflection of their time in the archive:

Write a paragraph describing what you did in the archives. Be sure to include any thoughts about:

  • What you learned in this process of working with archival materials.
  • What you might want to do if you had more time to go deeper in this research.
  • What surprised you most over the past three classes.

Upon reconvening in our classroom after our archive days, we shared our newfound knowledge. Impressions from the students included:

  • “These materials have been very interesting to sift through and work with, but it has been very hard for me to come up with a cohesive timeline of [Ann’s] stories and experiences. Like mentioned in class, working with archives is somewhat like detective work trying to piece everything together.”
  • “Ann and her daughter [Mai]…used letter-writing almost exclusively as a means to talk about their problems, which meant that pretty much the entire story was there in front of me. In all honesty, that was really cool for me.…This was especially interesting to me as the letters were written in the 1980s, especially 1989. How strange yet enticing that their language and ideas can resonate with me, almost twenty years later.”
  • “Reading ​​only ​​from ​​Frank’s ​​perspective​​ gives​​ me ​​a​​ strong​​ urge ​​to ​​read ​​Ann’s ​​letters and to see​​ her ​​reaction ​​to​​ his​​ affection. ​​There ​​is ​​a​​ particular​​ letter​​ where​​ Frank​​ apologizes ​​for ​​fighting with ​​Ann​​ while ​​they ​​are ​​visiting ​​each ​​other, ​​and ​​he​​ never​​ mentions ​​why, ​​but​​ I ​​wonder​​ what exactly ​​they ​​were ​​fighting ​​about.​”
  • “There were so many folders filled with years and years of stories, so I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took to gather and sort [them]. To be honest, the thought of looking through the archives of strangers sounded a bit boring to begin with, but after spending time flipping through the archives, I was so sad to leave. I think it would be very interesting to see someone start the process of grouping these materials together to create a story of someone’s entire life.”

Each group had learned a single fragment of the story of this collection and of this family. Each group, in turn, led the rest of the class through their portion. By comparing notes and complementing their peers’ discoveries, together the students created something resembling a whole.

Once we’d completed the entire exercise, we compiled a list of what our time with Ann Bryan Mariano McKay’s papers had allowed us to see and experience either more clearly than before or perhaps even for the first time. Here’s that list.

Our time in the archives allowed us to think about

  • how and why we record our lives and what we leave behind.
  • how even the smallest, most ordinary life may contain great beauty, tragedy, and wisdom.
  • how archival research is fun, fascinating, and challenging.
  • how a single life (Ann’s) contains the stories of many other lives (Frank’s, the daughters’) within it.
  • how not everything can be found on the Internet.
  • how people who lived long ago (20 years or more!), and whom we imagine as old-fashioned or dusty, are more recognizable to us than we think.
  • how our own private writing practices and creative processes might actually matter and have artistic or historical value.
  • how we too, with our small little lives, also have the right to tell and record our stories.

It was a deep pleasure to watch my students learn before my very eyes, witness them discover the thrill of archival research, and observe them fall in love with a family they had never met and to whom they had no connections other than the ones they were building in their imaginations. Truth be told, even I was surprised at how deeply and profoundly attached they became to our archival subjects. As the class filed out of the reading room on our last day of work there, I was alarmed to see tears streaming down the cheeks of one of my more taciturn students. When I asked her what was wrong, she sighed and gestured to the materials on the table. “It’s just so sad,” she said. “Beautiful, but sad.”

Note: Thanks to the University of Missouri’s Campus Writing Program for granting me a Writing Intensive Project Award so that I could take the time I needed to develop this course. Thanks also to John Konzal and the other archivists at the State Historical Society of Missouri for welcoming my class and letting us take over the reading room for three days. For more on Ann Bryan Mariano McKay, you can read her obituary here. http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-ann-bryan-mariano9-2009mar09-story.html


Senior Editor Julija Šukys is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile), one book-length translation (And I burned with shame), and of more than two dozen essays. Šukys draws on archives, interviews, bibliographical research, and observation to write about minor lives in war-torn or marginal places, about women’s life-writing, and about the legacy of violence across generations and national borders.

 

Reading Beverly Lowry’s Crossed Over: Inside/Outside, Part 2

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.

-Professor Bob Cowser, St. Lawrence University

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. What follows is the second half of student responses; click here for the first half.


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Sincere Johnson

It is human nature to view some acts of violence as unforgivable. In order to understand someone who has committed a crime of that magnitude, we would first have to care enough to try to find out how and why this happened. Not everyone will have the capability to attempt to understand. A person had to have some type of experience in their life, some form of pain and/or loss that provides this unique, peculiar perspective that enables them to look past the exterior of someone or something and go deep into the heart of the issue. In this case the issue is Ms. Karla Faye Tucker, a 23-year-old woman who was on death row for her role in the infamous pick axe murder of Mr. Jerry Lynn Dean and Ms. Deborah Thurton.

Ms. Lowry has inherited the ability to look past the murders into the person who is Ms. Karla Faye and I believe that the loss of Ms. Lowry’s son, Peter, is the sole reason behind it. Matter of fact, if it wasn’t for Peter, Ms. Lowry would not have ever met Ms. Faye. She writes, “If Peter hadn’t been killed, I would not have made the first trip up to see Karla Faye” (5). The interest in Ms. Faye came about from the void that was left inside Ms. Lowry from the loss of Peter.

The things that Ms. Lowry documented about Karla Faye’s life was more horrifying than the actual murders. Karla Faye was a doper at eight, a needle freak behind heroin by the time she was eleven, she basically used whatever drug that was around at the time. The most insane truth about that ordeal is her own mother exposed her to it. Having your mind clouded and distorted from drugs at that early of an age impairs the ability to have a normal life. A person’s perception of reality will be totally different from a regular member of society. She was prostituting before she became a teenager, so more than likely any man that comes into her life would most likely be no good for her. In fact, whoever is running around in them type of circles would be negative and exhibiting nothing but destructive behavior. So, whoever was in her circumference (her tribe) was just struck in their own little warped, distorted reality feeding off the negativity and spiraling and spiraling deeper into the black abyss where conscious doesn’t exist. I grew up in Harlem where there was always an abundance of drugs and violence. This story rates right at the top with some of the most horrendous stories that I have been exposed to.

Telling this story, Ms. Lowry forces the reader to have some form of empathy towards Ms. Karla Faye and if that was one of her goals with this book she definitely succeeded. When I finished reading this book my heart went out to the two murdered victims, but my heart truly bled for Ms. Karla Faye. No one should have had to go through some things like that, and it made me much more conscious of how I’m handling my role as a parent. I could now look at Ms. Karla Faye as someone more than just a murderer, and this book has instilled in me a responsibility to not judge a book by its cover, and to always remember that you truly don’t know a person until you know where they have been in life.

In closing, Ms. Lowry did a great deed for Ms. Faye and I have a better sense of humility because of this book. Even though I feel Ms. Lowry will have this perpetual void attached to her from the loss of her son, I feel by her writing this book it also helped her to comprehend her situation a little better and realize it could have been much worse. As for Ms. Karla Faye I take solace in the fact that at the end she was able to smile, joke, and be content with whatever happens. She knows and can be confident in the fact that she has accepted God in her life as her Lord and savior and her life is in His hands.

Hannah Leslie

Beverly Lowry’s Crossed Over: A Murder, a Memoir, tells the story of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker and Peter Lowry, the authors late son. Tucker tells her life story through a Plexiglas window as she awaits execution on death row. Although all of their interactions were limited to what relationship could be formed through a window, they developed a strong bond. As a reader, I struggled to find links between Karla Faye Tucker and Peter’s stories. The book seemed like a desperate attempt by Lowry to combine two stories that had no business being told together in the first place. It strikes me as an odd way of Lowry trying to justify the parenting that may have led to the untimely death of her son by comparing him to someone who also had a bad upbringing, and then became a murderer. Each story might have been better had they been written on their own, but by combining them the significant relevance of each is lost in the confusion of trying to write two stories as one.

The thought that their relationship escalated to anything beyond what they formed through the Plexiglas divider may be seen as “immature,” however there are certain aspects of the story that lead me to believe that this relationship became at least an unhealthy obsession, if not romantic. How many people do you know who have a picture of a pickaxe murderer on their desk? Especially with no encounters previous to those in the prison. When questioned by her friends about why she would make the trip to see Karla Faye, Lowry responds, “But look at her”(10). Odd. In my opinion, this single line discredits a lot of what followed in the book. Her sole reason for going to visit was based on a superficial conclusion. This leads me to question Lowry’s intentions when she decided to seek out a woman who’s story she just happened to stumble upon.

If I take anything away from this book it would be an appreciation for Karla Faye’s honesty and acceptance for a woman who was trying to exploit her story. Perhaps It was because she was lonely on death row and Lowry provided her with companionship and a consistent relationship, something she had never had before. To me it seems as if Lowry used Tucker to fill a void left by the death of her son, it’s her shot at redemption for the years of lackadaisical parenting.  In some way, Lowry is doing the same thing to Karla as all the other people who had been in and out of her life. She was a broken woman who had been taken advantage of and had never had anyone care about her for purposes other than sex, drugs, or money. Lowry is no better than Karla’s mother who did drugs with her at a very young age and her friend who turned her in. A harsh criticism, but seemingly justifiable.

Lowry’s justification for making the connection between the stories is as follows: “If Peter had not been killed, I would not have made the first trip up to see Karla Faye” (5). This doesn’t provide any insight into why her infatuation began and her argument as to why this explains her developed infatuation with Tucker doesn’t make sense. While Lowry and Tucker were able to find a bond with each other, I struggled to find the same connection with the book as it evoked feelings of dissatisfaction and confusion.

Danny Lin

Karla Faye Tucker, the infamous Houston “Pickax Murderer,” under the influence of drugs committed a brutal crime which put her on death row. After her arrest, she found God, had the time to sober up, and in the process found herself, her true self. Having the opportunity to find God, to find one’s true self and be reformed, should she still be executed? After losing her son in a hit and run accident, Beverly Lowry, a novelist, looking for answers and possibly trying to fill the void of her son. Lowry says, “I was captivated by her, that’s all. Her looks her story, the extremes to which passion, circumstance and drugs had taken her,” (10) after she brought up the idea of making the trip to visit Karla. Her friends were thinking, “if she needed a cause, there were plenty of far more deserving people out there to feel sorry for” (10). So, what makes Lowry so desperate to connect with Karla?

In March of 1989, on Lowry’s first visit to Karla, “Karla was twenty-nine. She seemed more like maybe thirteen, a transitional girl and no wonder: Karla Faye missed out in adolescence” (25). She believes that prison has given Karla a chance to go back and, like a learning-disabled child, catch up on the steps she missed (25). Karla’s childlike personality makes Lowry wonder if Peter would’ve been like her if he was still alive. Karla sees Lowry as her second mother but not a replacement of her actual mother Carolyn Moore, but almost like the mother she never had. Karla says, “I don’t think any of this would have happened if my mother hadn’t died (Lowry 99). But she is not blaming her mother for the crime that she committed. She says, “I don’t blame nobody but myself, but when she died, it changed me. I turned stone cold to the world” (99) The way Lowry cares for Karla reminds her of Carolyn Moore, and Karla was just reminiscing the days when she was alive. But connecting with Karla on such an intimate level, does Lowry get the answers she was seeking? After Lowry’s visit to Karla, she dreamt of Karla. The dream she had was about Karla escaping prison, showing up in front of Lowry’s house, then they go for a drive to show her around the town where Lowry grew up at. Then at some point the change places, Lowry becomes Karla the escaped prisoner, wearing only a white cotton slip and ballerina slippers also looking down and noticing that she has skinny calves, Karla’s calves (88). Should Karla still be executed after she found her true self, the child within also after she found God, although she didn’t say she was remorseful?

Richard Lozada

Throughout the course of my life, I can count on both hands all the books I have ever read, or the ones that I care to remember. As a boy, I can recollect the “hooked on phonics” and “reading is fundamental” T.V. commercials. Reading was just a hobby that I never acquired. It was not until I began to read Crossed Over by Beverly Lowry did I experience what readers call “a book you can’t put down.” As I began to read, I became more and more connected to this book. I would read a few chapters before I went to bed. Then a few chapters in the morning when I woke up. Read more chapters throughout the course of the day. I could not put it down. As I came to the end of the book, for the first time I was left with so many questions. The last sentence of the book being, “you bump up against the final, most unacceptable thing, you see what you can come up with” (Lowry 245). Like the poet, I find myself with so much uncertainty.

Reading Crossed Over for a second time allowed me to think more critically about the relationship between these two women. This is a story of human connection. How a picture in a news article of a stranger can capture one’s attention and hooked their heart (3). The human connection is a wonderful thing if we allow it. If we are not afraid to open up, even to a stranger on death row for a double murder, bonds and friendships can be built. In the late 1980s during a dark and flat time in Beverly Lowry’s life, she became friends with Karla Faye Tucker, a confessed murderer who lived on death row in the Mountain View Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections (Lowry frwrd). This story says something beautiful about human connections, that two people at opposite ends of tragedy can connect with each other emotionally. Beverly Lowry’s connection with Karla Faye Tucker offers solace for the death of her son Peter. For several years, Beverly Lowry visited with Karla Faye Tucker and wrote about those visits (frwrd). In the course of writing this book, a human connection was made. In Beverly Lowry’s own words, “In time, I think-despite Plexiglas and all other barriers meant to come between us—we both crossed over” (Lowry ackn.).

Jill Mackillop
The sensation of being both confused and intrigued is pricked over and over again in Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, the true story which details the aftermath of the murder of author Beverly Lowry’s son Peter, and the obsession she forms thereafter with infamous death-row murderer Karla Faye Tucker. Right and wrong and truth and grief-stricken bias is stirred together in a muddled stew. Lowry extricates similarities and differences from both women’s generally opposite life stories, and though incredibly compelling to read, Lowry herself acknowledges that her own intimate closeness to the situation may have altered her presentation of the truth: “It has been seven years. I am hoping by now to have earned a good seat in this drama, to have gained perspective enough to be able to start figuring out what is what and which empty place this loving girl-woman, Karla Faye Tucker, this convicted murderer, has come in this exact point in my life to fill.” The emotional trauma of her son’s death makes it difficult for her to objectively discuss the relationship she formed with Karla, as well as Karla’s own story. It takes a healthy amount of self-awareness to address this, but Lowry writes the book nonetheless. This is troubling. It’s questionable what amount of time (if any) would be enough to distance Lowry from the events she experienced in a way that would remove some of the personal biases. Perhaps it’s impossible to remove the tint of personal bias from traumatic periods at all. But regardless, the sureness of her emotions and interpretations is less important in retelling her own story than it is telling Karla’s. The intent of the nonfiction writer is so often warped by the voice of a grief-stricken woman because the two are the same person. Reading Crossed Over begs the question— is this a memoir of two women? Is it half memoir and half attempted journalism? And whatever the intended structure, does it work? Could it have been done better?

In a perfect world a grief stricken mother could step outside of her misery in order to separate her narrative voices into journalist and woman. That is a monumental thing to ask of Lowry. If this book was written as a means for Lowry to heal, to understand, the best way to do so would not have been journalistically. But a journalistic perspective is almost owed to Karla Faye Tucker. This is no longer the story of one woman changed by the death of her son and writing to self-reflect. It is now the presentation of another person’s life, a person who has lived an unbelievable life and done something incredibly controversial. This comes with a responsibility to present Karla Faye Tucker unbiasedly, a responsibility that Lowry does not (and cannot) fulfill.

The grasp with which Lowry holds onto Karla makes for a fascinating read, but there are downfalls in mixing memoir and advocacy. The reader should be able to reach an individual conclusion about good and evil and grief and growth without the musing of Lowry guiding them towards a certain conclusion.Though the language is far from explicitly persuasive, it’s rather clear that Lowry doesn’t believe Karla should be executed. If Karla is truly a redeemed woman and likable enough character, then she would be redeemed by the masses without the forethought of Lowry’s opinions. I hesitate to consider if Lowry’s advocation is actually weakened by her admitted turmoil and proximity to the situation. It’s all too easy to dismiss her care for Karla as a result of humongous emotional stress and a sudden need for distraction. Beyond the notion that mixed intents weaken rhetorical tactics, there is the ethical concern that the integrity of Karla Faye Tucker’s story- for better or for worse- is lost. Stepping away from what should or shouldn’t happen to Karla, there is 20+ years of hardship that created this woman. Years which are not being shared by the woman herself. We are receiving information second-hand, and given personal commentary before and afterwards to boot. Distractions encase the snippets of Karla’s life, taking us out of the past and into Lowry’s present, contextualizing Karla’s stories in the eyes of the author. Lowry’s own unsureness establishes that she may be an unreliable narrator, which means that she relays only the information from Karla that was most significant to her, for whatever reason.

Though all in all it is a compelling story and one that should not be criticized without the sympathetic consideration of a woman mourning her child, there are instances where Crossing Over could have done even more for Karla Faye Tucker. What Lowry does manage, to a level that should in no way be overlooked, is to pluck the idea from reader’s brains that evil is perhaps on the hands of many and not the one manifest of a tortured little girl. That weight is not comfortable to bear, but Lowry slips it subtly onto our shoulders in painstaking movements.

Ellen Olsson

We are all drawn to the unknown, the unusual, and the grotesque. We crane our necks from our cars at every roadside accident. We want to know not only why a killer murdered their victims, but how. Every disgusting detail simultaneously horrifies and fascinates us. Yet very few of us reflect on this behavior, and if we do, I for one have not stumbled onto a reason for the captivation. Sometimes there is no explanation for a behavior. However, for Beverly Lowry to write a book almost entirely about identifying why Karla Faye interests her without having any sort of revelation is at once disappointing upon first read but ingenious once re-considered. Her book revealed to me that there are connections between people that adhere to no logic. She found a way to cross a barrier between herself and a murderer without being able to empathize entirely with her. How she accomplished that feat interests me more than why she initially contacted Karla Faye.

Beverly Lowry cannot relate to the woman across the Plexiglas. When she speaks of Karla’s crime under the influence of drugs, Beverly Lowry states, “Hearing the stories, seeing the pictures, I try to approach some understanding of how that was; try to step over, in imagination and memory, the line between my world and hers” (Lowry 44). She attempts to relate with her comparisons of Karla Faye’s drug addiction to her own one-time experience with diet pills, but the fact of the matter is that she simply cannot imagine Karla Faye’s experiences. Lowry has not smoked marijuana since age eight, or shot heroin since age eleven.  She has not punctured a human body countless times with a pickaxe. What Crossed Over teaches us, though, is that Lowry’s disconnect from Karla Faye in real life experience is made up for by her openness to the unknown. Karla Faye in turn opens up to Beverly Lowry and they connect like only two honest and unashamed people can.

Beverly Lowry cannot explain why she cares so much for Karla Faye Tucker because their connection is not based on reason. They connect because they are simply human around each other, which is a connection most of us do not experience often. Karla Faye does not replace Beverly Lowry’s dead son. Beverly Lowry does not replace Karla Faye’s mother, though she considers both as explanations. Beverly Lowry did what many of us cannot. She shed her urge to judge and leapt nakedly into the unknown life that Karla Faye led, and found an intimacy that changed her idea of second chances. None of these experiences could prevent the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, but all of these experiences changed the lives of these two different women. I am not sure how much Beverly Lowry reads into her relationship with Karla Faye. I cannot know if I am correct in believing their openness is what allowed the barrier to be crossed, not their circumstance. After all, we can only know what our own experience is, and just as Beverly Lowry may not know why she contacted Karla Faye Tucker, I may never know why this book taught me these lessons in connecting without empathy. I now believe that the most important ability is to hear another’s life story, and to accept wholly that we can love and care for a person whose life experience we cannot fully comprehend. That is what Beverly Lowry was able to do, and that is what makes her such a powerful writer.

Sonya Sandu

Did Lowry cross the line from professional relationship to something inappropriate, maybe even borderline obsessive? This is shown through the various ways Lowry chose to present her interactions with Tucker, the vocabulary she uses to describe her, and her constant mental fixation with Tucker. Lowry visited Tucker many times in the penitentiary where she was houses, initially out of curiosity of Tucker, but also because of the death of her son, Peter. The visit turned into a positive experience for Lowry. She said that they “kept crossing the line,” talking like they were well acquainted with one another, making “the daredevil leap into friendship fast and on the spot and without restrictions” (67).  Lowry repetitively associated her meeting with Tucker as friends meeting for an everyday conversation, sometimes saying they are “schoolgirls,” (66) and that at the end of their meetings, they “press [their] palms against the Plexiglas until [their] fingers turn white… hugging [themselves] as a substitute for one another.” (84) The casual, nonchalance of the meetings between these two women show that although Lowry originally visited the jail out of interest, the two quickly turned into friends, confiding in each other about their deepest darkest secrets, all in a three-hour time period. Lowry crosses the boundary here as she felt comfort and commodore with Tucker, something that journalists make emphasis in not doing, not letting themselves get consumed in the story, which is what Lowry did.

Another way Lowry pushed the limit in her alliance with Tucker is the way she describes Tucker. In the beginning of the book Lowry described the snapshot of Tucker as something that “hooked [her] heart (3),” and portraying Tucker as “lovely,” and “loving” (3-5). These are words that one wouldn’t connect with a brutal murderer, however Lowry constantly reminds the reader of Tuckers beauty, saying that she was “captivated by her,” (10) without even meeting Tucker yet. She also described her voice as warm and bright, always using the most positive of adjectives to portray Tucker, making sure she was seen by the reader in the best light, even making a point to call her the “most loving person [she has] ever met.” (197)  Lowry genuinely believes all of these characteristics about Tucker, becoming enveloped in her pictures, sometimes losing herself staring. This shows the obsession and infatuation Lowry has for Tucker.

The last way Lowry shows her crossing of the line is the mental fixation she has of Tucker, which is also shown to be reciprocated by Tucker later in the book. This starts with Lowry thinking about Tucker in specific situations that she feels Tucker would appreciate, for example when the horse gave birth, Lowry took snapshots because she felt “Karla will love this” (79). This fixation then grew as Lowry had dreams about Tucker, saying that in the dream she looked “whorish but plenty cute” (80). Tucker also had dreams about Lowry, three to be exact, the first dream about Lowry asking Tucker to have sex with herself and her husband Glen. The second dream Tucker had was about nothing as interesting as the first, just about one of Tucker’s childhood homes and how “Karla felt safe” (220) in the presence of Lowry. The final dream Tucker had about Lowry was Tucker introducing Lowry to her mother and her mother welcoming her. This exchange of dreams between the two women just prove how inappropriate the relationship between them were, especially with the introduction of Tuckers first dream, which was of the sexual nature. Lowry crossed a line in this setting as she invited a friendship and intimate relationship with Tucker, allowing both of them to feel comfortable enough with each other that they even think about one another in their subconscious.

In conclusion, Beverly Lowry entered a non-professional relationship with Karla Faye Tucker, but embraced it with two arms wide open. Lowry allowed herself to become attached with Tucker, and presented that through her intimate and personal interactions with Tucker, the vocabulary she used to describe and present her, and the constant mental fixation Lowry had for her. Lowry knowingly entered this relationship, however it came to her advantage as this is the very reason why the book is as good as it is. Lowry knew that once she became committed to Tucker, her book will gain the emotional and intimate story, as if the reader actually knew Tucker themselves. In the end, Lowry crossed the line between journalist and subject, but it did work in favour of the book.

Hamidou Sylla

The book Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir by Beverly Lowry indulges its audience to think about the underlying structures in society that created of Karla Faye Tucker the pickaxe murderer, that we know. It exposes the some of the things that are fundamentally wrong with the culture of our punitive justice system. For example, “In Texas, once a defendant is found guilty of capital murder, there are only two possible sentences, life imprisonment or death. The jury itself does not sentence the convicted murderer; the judge does. The jury’s job is to vote on two special issues: (I) whether the conduct that caused the death of the  victim was committed deliberately and with reasonable expectation that death would result and (2) whether there is probability that the defendant will commit acts of violence that will constitute a continuing threat to society” (Lowry 177). In the words of Dr. Bob Cowser, “what the justice system cares about when it comes to crime is did you did you do it? If yes, did you know what you were doing when you did it?” This approach is too simplistic and totally ignores society’s role in creating the social conditions that causes us to make the irrational decisions of committing crime in the first place.

It is far easier to just punish someone for a crime their committed than to question why they did the crime? Let’s review the choices that Beverly Lowry made to paint a more humane image of Karla Faye Tucker and urge us to think about how her social conditions contributed to her development as a criminal. Lowry decided to introduce us to Karla’s childhood and upbringing thus, shedding more light on her psychological development. None of this excuses Karla from the crime she committed. However, despite her crime, Lowry asks us to recognize that Karla never had the opportunity to be innocent like other children. She was born and raised in cycle of violence, drugs, and lawlessness. She started fighting, getting high, not doing well at school, and living like a misfit at an early age. The road of failure was beautifully carved for her before she was even put into this world. Tupac Shakur once asked “Am I just a victim of things I did to maintain.” Lowry pauses a similar question which is, is Karla a victim of things she did to sustain herself? If so, how responsible is her family for not providing her the right tools to help her become successful and what is society’s role in creating these social conditions? As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Beverly Lowry, exposes to the life of Karla before the murder in order to show us that the Pickaxe Murder was not born overnight, many things contributed to her development. Therefore, as intellectuals we should take all those factors into consideration before making any type of decisions pertaining to Karla.

Xin Tao

Beverly Lowry, a writer who was still lives in the shadow of her son’s death from a hit-and-run accident, is attracted to the stories in a newspaper of Karla’s, a condemned woman,  spiritual awakening and started to visit her. Over the time, they formed a deep friendship with each other through talking in a restricted room at a prison. Lowry tried to know more about Karla and tried to help her because she wanted to compensate for not being able to save her son’s life. She learned how to face the death after meeting with Karla.

Lowry was so remorseful for not being able to do anything to save her son Peter’s life that she  tried to save the life of Karla, another young person whose struggles were similar to Perter’s. Peter was not a good boy when he was alive. He often broke the school rules, and sometimes even the laws. Lowry always worried about him end up being a state boy not sure what this means. However, as a mother, Lowry still had the hope for him to change into a good person. “He is not a bad boy, I kept saying to myself at the time. Then I’d flip-flop. Maybe he is. Maybe, I’d think, there is such a thing as born bad”, Lowry stated (19). The contrast between “he is not” and “maybe he is” showed that Lowry is more inclined for the idea that Peter is a good boy. She always had the thought that Lowery will change one day. However, Lowry “do not have to try to figure out how to be a good mother to him because Peter is dead” (20). She still had so much she could teach and help Peter, but there is no chance for her to do that.

While she was living with the sadness of losing Peter, she read the news about Karla, a death penalty prisoner who had changed while in prison. The curiosity about how a woman sentenced to the death-penalty changed into a good person motivated Lowry to meet Karla. After talking with Karla several times, Lowry became familiar with Karla and knew more about her. Karla was a evil person before she entered the prison. She even killed people for fun. When she was asked whether she got sexual gratification after killing Jerry, she answered “Well, hell yes” (174). However, after she went to the prison, she become a person who stopped doing drugs, and believed in God from being influenced by the prison chaplain. She started to feel sorry about what she had done, and referring to the people she killed as “victims”. She restarted her life in prison. The big contrast between Karla’s changes in thoughts and behaviors after entry to prison impressed Lowry and she made up her mind to try her best to help Karla overturn her death sentence.

The changes of Karla remind Lowry of Peter and proved her belief that Peter could absolutely change to be good. Karla changed from an evil person to a person who admitted what she did was wrong and began to feel sorry for the victims. Karla’s change proved that humans are born good. Peter was a bad boy, but he did not commit a crime. The fact that Karla changed increases Lowry’s guilt for not getting the opportunities to teach and do enough to help her son before he passed away. In order to compensate for what she did, she decided to help Karla, who is facing the death penalty, but still alive. Lowry did not want the tragedy of her son to happen to another young person, so she tried her best to help Karla and kept meeting with her.

In conclusion, Lowry tried all she could do to help Karla because she wanted to compensate for what she did not do for Peter. Through the process of meeting with Karla, she felt less self-blame for the death of Peter and learned to face his death through talking with Karla and seeing her changes in prison.


Don’t miss the first half Professor Cowser’s students’ responses in “Reading Crossing Over, Part 1,” posted last week!

Reading Beverly Lowry’s Crossed Over: Inside/Outside, Part 1

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.

-Professor Bob Cowser, St. Lawrence University

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.


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Julia Breit

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.

Jesse Campo

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.

Christopher Chiaro

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.

James Cronin

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.

Hongxi E

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.

Brian Espitia

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.

Rose Esselstyn

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.

Luis Gomez

“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).

Kori Jackson

“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!

Christine Cusick–Reflections on Teaching

In 2017, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Parker J. Palmer’s provocative book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life in which he eloquently reminds us that teaching is a mutually transformative act, one that requires self reflection and courage. Teaching is an act of hope, an act that demands courage because no matter how we might try to distance ourselves from its formulas, it is inevitably a surrendering to the embrace of the imagination and the heart.

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Cythnia Ozick offers us a similar insight when reflecting on the act of putting pen to paper, or fingertips to keyboard, as one might. She writes that “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.” I think often about these lines, sometimes printing them at the top of my syllabi, sometimes whispering them to myself when I face my own blank page and simply cannot muster the coherence I long for. Even after more than a decade in the writing classroom, most often encountering first year students who bring a bit of trepidation to the world of academic writing, I sometimes feel that I am only beginning to effectively enter into this confluence of courage that is the writing classroom. And it has, as most authentic learning experiences do, invited me into an embrace of my own vulnerabilities and uncertainties.

Nancy Sommers’s essay, “I Stand Here Writing” was originally published in an academic journal, College Writing, and yet it is a compelling example of how genres are never authentic vacuums, that the notion that we can sever our personal selves from the act of putting words down, and I would add, entering the space of a classroom, is indeed grounded on false pretense. What is brilliant about this essay is that it enacts the very argument that it articulates. It eloquently curates the author’s family history against her own educational history, invoking canonical giants like Emerson while making just as strong a case for the textual power of a daughter’s refrigerator hieroglyphics and a mother’s four-leaf clovers in a greeting card. For a first year student who is often negotiating how and why she will have a place in the mysterious world of the academic essay, Nancy Sommers’s essay reminds her that she has always had a voice, has been sustained by multiple forms of texts, and that a writing life happens well beyond the page.

The essay begins by anchoring the reader to her senses: “I stand in my kitchen, wiping the cardamom, coriander, and cayenne off my fingers. My head is abuzz with words, with bits and pieces of conversation.” I open a class discussion with this line, asking students what they know of these spices, how it could be that the work of writing happens above a steaming pot heated by the fire of a kitchen stove. One student tells me she immediately connected to this because the scent of cardamom reminds her of her father’s morning mug of chai, aromas of his home. Another student pauses and asks if this is sort of like figuring out a paper idea on the cross-country trail? And we are off to work through a philosophically astute engagement with questions of language, cultural history, and human imperfection. But it is also an essay about the cost of a writing life, about the risks of the unknown. In the same opening lines that create an image of fingers stained not with ink but with the vibrant colors of fiery spices, the author is grappling with her memory of a line about the radical loss of certainty, a theme that ripples as an undercurrent throughout the essay.

I bring this essay to students because it reminds them that there is context to how they relate to words, to learning, to themselves, that even an academic such as Sommers, brings a process to uncovering what she has to say and how she will say it. Our relationship with ideas has a history that ebbs and flows with time and that sometimes in looking for answers we might be missing the point. In so doing, the essay invites students into research as an unpredictable act of curiosity: “I know that I can walk into text after text, source after source, and they will give me insight, but not answers. I have learned too that my sources can surprise me.” Each time I teach this essay, it strikes me that Sommers’s description of research could as easily have been of the pedagogical impulse, one steeped in past lives and open to surprises.

At its core, this essay is about how writing and research happen, though it doesn’t try to lull students into the delusions that there is some mysterious formula that will yield the same result for each of us. What it offers students is a sense of agency as writers, as researchers. Sommers writes:

“If I could teach my students one lesson about writing it would be to see themselves as sources, as places from which ideas originate, to seem themselves as Emerson’s transparent eyeball, all that they have read and experienced—the dictionaries of their lives—circulating through them.”

In these lines she grants students the permission for ambiguity, and in fact argues for the necessity of their uncertainty in moving toward the creation of meaning, of bringing the “dictionaries of their lives” to an audience. By bringing this essay, one likely created for an academic audience of writing scholars, to an undergraduate classroom, I can begin a conversation with them about how their stories matter, about how sometimes we have to navigate the personal to create meaning from the academic. Sommers writes: “Being personal means bringing their judgments and interpretations to bear on what they read and write, learning that they never leave themselves behind even when they write academic essays.” This can be a liberating piece of knowledge for an undergraduate writing student, to think that there is a place for their voice in the conversation of ideas and that in grappling with what this will mean for themselves they are a part of a larger human experience of listening for their words.

If I am honest, I love teaching this essay because of what it reveals for my students, but also because of how it sustains me.

“With writing and with teaching, as well as with love, we don’t know how the sentence will begin and, rarely ever, how it will end. Having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt, we can walk into all of those fields of writing, knowing that we will find volumes upon volumes bidding us enter.”

I return to Sommers’s eloquent lines on days when I pause at the classroom door, unsure if I have anything to offer my students, when I close my eyes to the sight of a blank screen, when I am in need of an invitation, of a voice to remind me that it is in entering into the ambiguous dance of teaching/writing that we find one another: teacher, student, writer, human.

Works Cited

Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass (20th Edition), 2017.

Sommers, Nance. “I Stand Here Writing” College English, Vol. 55, No. 4. (Apr., 1993), pp. 420-428. [Find Sommers’s essay online, here.]

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IMG_1984Christine Cusick lives in the foothills of the Laurel Highland mountains of western Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the intersections of ecology, story, and memory. She has published numerous ecocritical studies of contemporary literature and has been nationally recognized for creative nonfiction. Her most recent book is a coedited essay collection, Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment. She is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Seton Hill University.

 

Becoming the Student: Jennie Case Reflects on the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference

This past summer, I prepared with some apprehension to attend the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference. “Apprehension” because although I had attended graduate school, where I relished the conversations I had with other emerging writers, Bread Loaf marked four years since my last experience as a student. I had continued to exchange work with a few colleagues, and I attended conferences like AWP and ASLE, but between caring for an infant, finishing my dissertation, adjuncting, and then teaching, the time I had as a writer was simply that: time to write. It was my opportunity to sit down with a notebook, a computer, or a draft, and to craft something, read a collection of essays, or respond to a friend’s work. Outside of that, I was always the instructor: leading discussions and guiding students to analyze the structure of a published piece or to recognize the potential in their own developing drafts.

Sending my work in for a workshop at Bread Loaf Orion, as a result, brought back with it a surprising anxiety. Suddenly, I recalled how I had always felt when submitting work for workshops as an undergrad or a graduate student: that nervous anticipation, the second-guessing as I wondered if this essay was really far enough along, and how this roomful of people I did not know would respond to it—would respond to me. The anxiety my students wore on their faces in my undergraduate classes, I suddenly felt again in my own body: the way I bit my tongue, the way I sometimes reread my work and saw in it potential, but sometimes reread it and cringed.

Thankfully, I had no reason to feel intimated. That first day of our workshop in Vermont, I found myself surrounded by writers, and although some of us taught, others worked for the EPA, or as environmental journalists, or ran small farms, or wrote environmental journalism. Many had a much more extensive scientific background than me. Yet, everyone had submitted thought-provoking essays that explored the human relationship to place from interesting, compelling angles. We read each other’s work carefully, and we gave thoughtful feedback. I was reminded, once more, what it was like to be in a community of readers. A community of people who care about writing, and language, and what that writing can reveal about the human place in the world.

Outside of class, I attended lectures on fieldwork and using writing to break silence. I woke early to go on bird walks, getting back to the main lodge just as the breakfast bell rang and I loaded my tray with fruit and a bowl of oatmeal. In the afternoons, I attended mindfulness meditation sessions, where the instructor discussed how to use meditation to make room for creativity. At each and every event, I sat quietly, my notebook open, my mind open, ready to receive.

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What I will take with me the most from my experience at Bread Loaf, as a result, isn’t necessarily the feedback I got on that one essay, or the networking I did, but the reminder of how important it is to be a student: to find ways where I can step back, and simply listen to others and learn from them. To not try to be the authority, but to open myself to new perspectives and experiences—to go on a bird walk with birders far more experienced than me, and to sit in on a conversation with people who do something completely different from me for a living, to listen to lectures by accomplished writers and take rapid notes, to leave a workshop not thinking “I think that went well,” or “I believe I handled that part of the discussion effectively/ineffectively,” but with ideas and inspiration for my own work.

When I boarded the shuttle from Bread Loaf back to the Burlington airport at the end of the week, I did so with a satisfying exhaustion. The conversations and activities had been so engaging, I felt absolutely worn out. And yet, I also knew how necessary the opportunity was——and how rare. I will not be able to attend writing conferences like Bread Loaf every year. That simply isn’t an option right now for me and my family.

Yet I am reminded of the importance of becoming a student, not always the professor, and so I will make a point to seek out such opportunities, whether at future conferences down the road, at lectures hosted by my university, or at community events. They make me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better literary citizen. Placing myself in situations where I am not the expert reminds me what my students experience every day. And it reminds me how much there is to still learn from this world—and how joyful and challenging that learning experience can be.

Here is the reading list I gathered at the workshop:

Jane Brox’s The Wake of Silence (forthcoming 2018)

Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

David James Duncan’s River Teeth

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affairs with Nature

Kathleen Dean Moore’s Great Tide Rising

Claudia Rankin’s Citizen

For more information on the 2017 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference (and to apply), please click here and here. The 2017 conference runs from Saturday, June 3 – Friday, June 9, 2017. The conference will take place at the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont.

Editor’s Note: Please also read Jennie Case’s “In the Classroom” contribution “A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

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Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

“The annihilating ocean of whiteness”: J. D. Schraffenberger on Scott Russell Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing”

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Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit Steve Raymer)

For years I’ve regularly taught Scott Russell Sanders’ 1981 essay “Cloud Crossing” to my creative writing students because I admire it deeply—both thematically and on the level of craft—and am enriched each time I return to it. Like many (most?) good essays, it’s deceptively simple; nothing dramatic really “happens” as Sanders recounts a short hike up Hardesty Mountain (not far from Eugene, Oregon) with his one-year-old son Jesse strapped to his back. Too often, I find, students’ first instinct is to write about a momentous Occasion, an important Event, some memorable Incident, which is why I’ve learned of the deaths of so many loved and loving grandparents over the years—because these are intensely emotional moments marked as significant by ritual. Sanders demonstrates clearly that essays need not be about Big Experiences at all. They can be quiet and mundane, internal, familiar.

TheFourthGenre_cvrIn his co-edited textbook The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (which includes Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing”), Michael Steinberg notes Judith Kitchen’s list of five things that her writing students often “deny themselves”: retrospection, intrusion, meditation, introspection, and imagination, adding to this list: reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, digression, and projection (335-6). Sanders does not deny himself any of these techniques. While on top of the mountain, he observes “nine concrete piers that once supported the fire-tower” that is no longer there, but he doesn’t stop at what is immediately present. Instead, he imagines “the effort of hauling materials up this mountain to build this tower,” asking what became of it, realizing finally that it must’ve burned down:

The spectacle swiftly fills me: the mountain peak like a great torch, a volcano. The tower heaving on its nine legs. The windows bursting from the heat, tumbling among the rocks, fusing into molten blobs, the glass taking on whatever shape it cooled against.

There should be nails. Looking closer I find them among the shards of glass, sixteen-penny nails mostly, what we called spikes when I was building houses. Each one is somber with rust, but perfectly straight, never having been pried from wood. I think of the men who drove those nails, the way sweat stung in their eyes, the way their forearms clenched with every stroke of the hammer, and I wonder if any of them were still around when the tower was burned. (59)

Sanders conjures the burning tower and reanimates the men who built it not through observation or experience, and not even through research—but through imagination, speculation, supposing what might have been. We nevertheless get to experience as readers the “great torch” of the tower. We get to feel the “stroke of the hammer.” None of these things “happen,” but thinking makes it so.

Another reason “Cloud Crossing” finds its way onto my syllabi is that it was first published in the pages of the North American Review and subsequently reprinted in his 1987 collection The Paradise of Bombs, along with eight additional essays originally from the NAR. I mention this fact because I now happen to edit the North American Review here at the University of Northern Iowa, and I try to introduce my students to the literary publishing world whenever I can profitably do so, especially in the context of a magazine where they themselves have an opportunity to work. Returning to the original magazine publication also allows us to compare versions of the essay and ask questions about revision. In the case of “Cloud Crossing,” the original is much the same as the subsequent versions, with a notable exception. At the end of the essay, as Sanders begins the drive back home, his son is crying inconsolably in the back seat. The original version from the NAR:

But nothing comforts him, or comforts me, while we drive down the seven graveled miles of logging road to the highway. There we sink into open space again. The clouds are a featureless gray overhead. Jesse’s internal weather shifts, and he begins one of his calm babbling orations, contentedly munching his cracker… (59)

The revised version:

 But nothing comforts him, or comforts me, while we drive down the seven graveled miles of logging road to the highway. There we sink into open space again. The clouds are a featureless gray overhead.

As soon as the wheels are ringing beneath us on the blacktop, Jesse’s internal weather shifts, and he begins one of his calm babbling orations, contentedly munching his cracker… (193)

Sanders the essayist makes two significant changes here: he breaks for a new paragraph and slows our reading down by adding the introductory clause “As soon as the wheels are ringing beneath us on the blacktop.” Why do you suppose he’s made these changes? I ask my students. What new effects have been introduced? Has anything been lost? I tell my students there’s a chance that Sanders had indeed included this clause all along, but space constraints in the magazine compelled him to truncate the ending. Teaching the essay while acknowledging the original publication context sometimes leads to larger discussions like these of the literary publishing world. I also find it interesting and sometimes instructive to look at what else was published alongside a piece that appeared in a magazine. “Cloud Crossing,” for instance, is joined in its issue of the NAR by Barry Lopez’s “The Man Who Had Maps” and Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Old Things.” Are there aesthetic or thematic similarities among these pieces of prose? How is Sanders’ essay different at the level of genre from these short stories?

As a writer in complete control of his craft, Sanders’s work offers excellent examples for students to emulate:

Fascinated by his leaf, Jesse snuggles down in the pack and rides quietly. My heart begins to dance faster as the trail zigzags up the mountain through a series of switchbacks. Autumn has been dry in Oregon, so the dirt underfoot is powdery. Someone has been along here inspecting mushrooms. The discarded ones litter the trail like blackening pancakes. Except for the path, worn raw by deer and hikers, the floor of the woods is covered with moss. Fallen wood is soon hidden by the creeping emerald carpet, the land burying its own dead. Limegreen moss clings fuzzily to the upright trunks, and dangles in fluffy hanks from limbs, like fresh-dyed wool hung out to dry. A wad of it caught in the fist squeezes down to nothing. (57)

The energetic verbs (snuggles, zigzags, clings, dangles, squeezes), vivid images (powdery dirt, worn path, creeping moss), and fresh metaphors (blackened pancakes, burying its own dead, fresh-dyed wool) enliven this passage. Perhaps more impressively, however, Sanders moves from showing the reader a scene in the dramatic mode (Jesse snuggling, his heart dancing, the trail zigzagging) to telling the reader information in the narrative mode (Autumn has been dry, someone has been here) to playing linguistic music for the reader in the lyrical mode. Listen to the subtly overlapping assonance and consonance make Sanders’ prose sing: the “e” sounds of limegreen/clings/fuzzily; the “z” sound in clings/fuzzily; the short “u” sounds in fuzzily/upright/trunks/fluffy; the long “a” sounds in dangles/hanks; the “ng/nk” sounds in dangles/hanks, trunks/hanks/hung. Listening carefully and analyzing the specific ways this sentence is lyrical offers a range of examples for students to try themselves. In this one short passage of prose, we can observe the three main things writers do: show, tell, and sing.

I also like teaching “Cloud Crossing” because it’s a thoroughly ecological essay. Sanders takes us on a mountain hike with him, but this is not an idealized, romantic landscape. He tells us outright that “this is no literary landscape.” There is, furthermore, “[n]o peace for meditation with an eleven-month-old on your back,” and at the top of Hardesty Mountain, he admits, “There is no dramatic feeling of expansiveness, as there is on some peaks, because here the view is divided up into modest sweeps by Douglass firs, cottonwoods, great gangling heaps of briars” (58). To be sure, Sanders is renewed by the awe and wonder his son experiences, but the essay is driven by guilt and fear rather than by a sublime transcendence of being in the natural world. “And I realize that carrying Jesse up the mountain to see clouds,” he tells us,

is a penance as well as a pleasure—penance for the hours I have sat glaring at my typewriter while he scrabbled mewing outside my door, penance for the thousands of things my wife has not been able to do on account of my word mania, penance for all the countless times I have told my daughter Eva no, I can’t, I’m writing.

Sanders’ fear is born of “the long entropic view of things.” The essay begins by noting, “Clouds are temporary creatures,” and it ends with a meditation on human ephemerality: “Even while I peek at [Jesse] over my shoulder he is changing, neurons hooking up secret connections in his brain, calcium swelling his bones like mud in river deltas” (59). This realization leads to panic: “everything I know is chalked upon a blackboard, and, while I watch, a hand erases every last mark” (59). “Cloud Crossing” is not primarily an essay of place—though it certainly is that, too, as it grounded in the specificity of Hardesty Mountain and Sanders’ writerly attention to his environment—rather, it’s an essay of time. When we talk about ecological writing, we tend to focus on place—for good reasons—but we often neglect other ways of thinking ecologically and being in environments. If the main insight that ecology has to offer us is the inevitable interconnection of all things, these interconnections should carry us into the prehistoric past and into the distant future as well—so that we can understand more deeply who we are as humans, so that we can imagine new sustainable futures for those yet unborn.

“Cloud Crossing,” then, is a beautifully crafted and pedagogically useful essay. But I will not be including it on my next creative nonfiction syllabus. When I’ve taught it in the past, it’s been from Root and Steinberg’s The Fourth Genre, which I’ve required my students to buy. I liked the textbook because it’s both an anthology of essays by writers whose work I admire as well as a collection of thoughtful essays about the genre itself. But of the 56 writers in the current (6th) edition, only three are people of color: Judith Ortiz Cofer, Edwidge Danticat, and Dagoberto Gilb. Looking over previous editions of The Fourth Genre, I have discovered eight other people of color who have been included in the tables of contents at one point or another. Only one Native-American writer has ever been included, (Linda Hogan) and (unless we count Danticat, who is Haitian-American) no African-American writers (zero) have been included. (I should pause here to note that my analysis is obviously subject to some error because I can’t know for certain how all of these writers identify racially or ethnically. I stand firmly by the point, however. And besides, even if I’ve overlooked a few people of color in my count, it would do very little to change the overwhelming whiteness of the anthology.)

What are we to make of this lack of diversity? I don’t think it’s peculiar to The Fourth Genre because glancing through a few other anthologies of creative nonfiction, I find a similar predominance of white writers in the tables of contents. Should I be surprised? Probably not. But should I blame Root and Steinberg—and countless other editors—for their blind spots when these have been exactly my own blind spots as a teacher and writer? How can I complain about a white man’s essay in a textbook when it is, as I’ve said, beautifully crafted and pedagogically useful? How can I complain when I am myself a white man whose work has been included in such publications?

It’s true that we suffer from what Junot Diaz calls “the unbearable too-whiteness” of creative writing as a discipline in higher education, but is it also true that creative nonfiction as it is taught in writing classrooms is even whiter than poetry and fiction? That’s my suspicion, which means that I’m going to retire Scott Russell Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing.” I come to this decision not because I believe in fulfilling some arbitrary quota of people of color in a textbook or anthology (though it might surprise you to be reminded that the United States is only 62% white—The Fourth Genre, however, is 95% white), not because it’s the “right” thing to do, and not as liberal white-guilt penance, but because art is better when it is diverse, because white people (teachers, editors, writers) fool themselves if they think their literary taste and judgment have not been deeply (if unconsciously) formed by their own whiteness, because the current state of literary affairs excludes the voices of people of color not maliciously but systemically, because like Diaz, I want “[t]o create in the present a fix to a past that can never be altered.” Instead of Sanders’s work, who has been and will remain a literary hero of mine, I will teach James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” or Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” as Chauna Craig and Suzanne Cope have suggested respectively on this very blog. I will seek out and teach the essays of Martín Espada and bell hooks and Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday and the countless other people of color whose work has remained in my own blind spot for years.

“Cloud Crossing” is about change. Early in the essay, Sanders tells us that his child “is changing cloud-fast before my eyes. His perky voice begins pinning labels on dogs and bathtubs and sun.” Like most writers, he is acutely aware of language (“word mania”), and like most parents, he is amazed by the utterance of his child’s first few phonemes. On their hike, Jesse points to the sky and says “Ba! Ba!” Sanders corrects him: “‘Moon,’ I say. ‘Ba! Ba!’ he insists. Let it stay a ball for a while, something to play catch with, roll across the linoleum.” The essay implicitly asks us to consider how language represents the world around us. How we decide which label gets affixed to which thing. This is a linguistic question, a literary question, and it can quickly become a political question, too—words, writing, literature, art: what forms will our lives take? What sentences will contain our understanding of reality, truth, history?

“Cloud Crossing” ends in terror as Sanders descends the mountain, “down through vapors that leach color from ferns, past trees that are dissolving. Stumps and downed logs lose their shape, merge into the clouds.” The terror here is dissolution, the erasure of difference, the loss of shape and definition. As they finally leave this featureless cloudscape, Sanders listens to his child’s “calm babbling orations”: “The thread of his voice slowly draws me out of the annihilating ocean of whiteness. ‘Moon,’ he is piping from the backseat, ‘moon!’” The label has stuck—“moon!”—for Jesse as it has for us. How might we now draw ourselves out of a different but no less annihilating “ocean of whiteness”?

Works Cited

Diaz, Junot. “MFA vs. POC.” The New Yorker. April 30, 2014. Web.

Sanders, Scott. “Cloud Crossing.” North American Review 266.3. (1981): 57-59. Print.

Sanders, Scott Russell. “Cloud Crossing.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg. 6th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. 188-93. Print.

Steinberg, Michael. “Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg. 6th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. 333-36. Print.

***

Schraffenberger_author_pic (2) (2)J. D. Schraffenberger is editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of two books of poetry, Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan Press) and The Waxen Poor (Twelve Winters Press), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative NonfictionBrevityNotre Dame ReviewPoetry EastPrairie Schooner, and elsewhere. His essay “Ecological Creative Writing,” co-written with James Engelhardt appears in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century (Southern Illinois University Press 2015), and his manifesto “Our Discipline: An Ecological Creative Writing Manifesto” is forthcoming in the Journal of Creative Writing Studies.

Reading List: Nonfiction Craft Books

IMG_7690Here’s a list of books to use when teaching CNF. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start. This list originally grew out of a discussion by members of the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC). 

Thanks to Julija Šukys for this terrific list!

__________

  • Atkins, Douglas. Tracing the Essay
  • Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir
  • Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
  • Bradway, Becky and Hesse, Douglas, eds. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology
  • Castro, Joy. Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family
  • D’Agata, John, ed. Lost Origins of the Essay
  • –, ed. The Next American Essay
  • DeSalvo, Louise. The Art of Slow Writing
  • –. Writing as a Way of Healing
  • Fakundiny, Lydia, ed. Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov. The Art of the Essay
  • Forché, Carolyn and Gerard, Philip. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs
  • Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story.
  • Gutkind, Lee, ed. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction
  • –. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
  • Handler, Jessica. Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss
  • Iversen, Kristen. Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft Creative Nonfiction
  • Kaplan, Beth. True to Life: 50 Steps to Help You Tell Your Story
  • Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir
  • Kephardt, Beth. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir
  • Kidder, Tracy and Todd, Richard. Good Prose, the Art of Nonfiction
  • Lazar, David, ed. Truth in Nonfiction: Essays
  • Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay
  • –. To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
  • MacDonnell, Jane Taylor. Living to Tell the Tale
  • Miller, Brenda and Paola, Suzanne. Tell it Slant
  • Moore, Dinty. Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide to Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction.
  • –, ed. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers.
  • –. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.
  • Rainer, Tristine. The New Autobiography
  • Root, Robert. The Nonfictionist’s Guide.
  • Roorbach, Bill. Writing Life Stories
  • Silverman, Sue Williams. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir 
  • Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example
  • Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction
  • Sulak, Marcela and Jacqueline Kolosov. Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres
  • Thompson, Craig. Blankets
  • Tredinnick, Mark. The Land’s Wild Music
  • Williford, Lex and Michael Martone, eds. Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present
  • Yagoda, Ben. Memoir: A History
  • Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
  • –. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

“Baby, Come Hug”: Teaching Amy Hempel In A Vulnerable Time

BJ Hollars is the author of several books, BJ_Author_Photo_2014 2 copyincluding two forthcoming in 2015: From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test.  He can be reached through his website www.bjhollars.com


Disclaimer:

Dear Assay Readers,

The Hempel story to which I refer is indeed, fiction and was taught during a fiction class. Nevertheless, this particular story might be useful in any classroom. And as noted in the post, given the story’s thematic resonance in my own life, I felt compelled to share it. Literature has genres; life does not.


The morning after my mother-in-law died, I reread Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”

Lord knows I didn’t want to.

In fact, of all the stories I really didn’t want to read that day, Hempel’s was at the top of the list. A story about a woman on her deathbed could hardly provide the uplifting message I was after; though my syllabus hadn’t left me much say in the matter.

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