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!

#AWP17 Conference Report — Penny Guisinger on “But That’s Not How It Was: Memoir Writers on Pushing Back Against Expected Narratives”

awp#AWP17 Panel R156: But That’s Not How It Was: Memoir Writers on Pushing Back Against Expected Narratives

Description: When we’re writing about hot button topics such as sexual assault, domestic abuse, and poverty, there are often expectations about how the story should go. These common archetypes can be deeply held not just by general readers and publishing’s gatekeepers, but also by our inner selves. The writers on this panel share strategies for sorting out how society thinks we ought to have responded to trauma from how we actually did, and when and how to resist the pressure to conform to an expected line.

Panelists: Zoe Zolbrod, Lynn Hall, Alice Anderson, Laurie Cannady, and Wendy Ortiz

Conference Report

Wouldn’t it be nice if our lives followed some Hollywood-esque formula? If life’s events lined up in a chronological order that made a clean narrative arc; if it was clear who the good guys are and the bad; if people engaged in consistent and predictable behaviors; if we knew enough not to open that basement door and shakily descend into the darkness below? Wouldn’t that be especially nice for us memoir writers? Not only would the writing be easier, but marketing plans would practically implement themselves, and we would all retire early after selling the movie rights.

This is a nice fantasy, but it’s not what happens. It’s not how life happens. And it’s not how great memoir happens either.

The five panelists participating in But That’s Now How It Was at AWP 2017 shared stories of living, writing, and publishing stories that stubbornly did not follow the formula. Zoe Zolbrod, Lynn Hall, Alice Anderson, Laurie Cannady, and Wendy Ortiz each authored memoirs that captured their lived realities, which are more complicated (and harder to sell) than other, more predictable plot tropes. Panelists shared stories of being people first, writers second, and marketable commodities third, all in the face of pressure to prioritize differently.

Each author’s experiences in the writing and publishing of their book was different, yet also alarmingly the same. Zolbrod’s book, The Telling, tells the story of being the victim of child sexual abuse. She was asked (or told) to recast it as more of a recovery book to make the marketing easier. She resisted pressure to depict this part of her life as a “Gothic horror story” because “life is more nuanced than that.”

Anderson’s book, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, about the “unraveling of a violent marriage in post-Katrina Louisiana,” similarly pushed back against publishing categories. She thinks of her book as a love story; one that is funny, beautiful, and about a family. “The story was all of these things,” she said. She ended up turning down a potentially lucrative publishing contract in favor of one that allowed her to tell the story as she experienced it: with nuance and depth.

Laurie Cannady was admonished by a visiting lecturer in her MFA program for having a life that fit “every possible stereotype of a black girl growing up where you grew up.” Further, she was informed that her abuser’s choice to abuse both children and adults was something that just didn’t happen. “What I heard was that my story didn’t exist.” Her book, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, says otherwise.

Lynn Hall’s experience of publishing Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience was similar. On the road to publication she was asked to leave out the fact that she was sexually abused as a child. “This is a story of repeat victimization,” said Hall. “The book has three perps. People didn’t like that.” She has also had interviewers chop up her sentences and put them together in ways that make it sound like she blames the Air Force Academy far more than she does. “Markets like good and evil.”

Wendy Ortiz found that choosing a small press was one way around these pressures. Her book, Excavation, is about childhood sexual abuse she experienced as a teenager. But her teen self, refusing to be a trope, thought she was having a love affair, and did not see herself as a victim. That’s the story Ortiz wanted to tell: one with complications and honesty. She did not use the words victim or perpetrator, and larger publishing houses had a hard time with the idea that something we all know is terrible could be, in fact, not that kind of terrible. “I’m not supposed to be ambivalent about this,” said Ortiz. “But I treasure ambivalence.”

Because women’s experiences of violence have become politicized narratives, each of these writers had to navigate conversations with an entire industry that exists to make money first and art second. And while smaller presses can have more latitude, offering shelter, the messages also come from agents, workshop leaders, family members, friends, and the psyches of the writers themselves. Anderson talked very specifically about the internal pushback she created against her own story and the need to address it before she could even write the book.

There’s certainly no single way to get around the problem, but Cannady offered five very specific pieces of advice to anyone at any point in the journey who hears anything that sounds like, “You don’t get to have that story” from any other person. Ready?

  1. Fuck ‘em. (This was especially appreciated by the audience, and truly – in the heart of this Assay guest blogger – set an important standard for dropping of the F-bomb at this year’s AWP.)
  2. Write beneath the stereotypes. Go beyond what’s “expected.”
  3. Write in a way that attacks those stereotypes if they appear in your story.
  4. (Also received a lot of nodding and knowing noises of agreement from those present.)
  5. Let go of shame. Shut out the voices telling you not to share. Accept questions, but don’t accept berating. (She gave the audience permission to resort to use of mace or hand-to-hand combat, as necessary. We all fucking wrote that down.) (See?)

In her introductory remarks, Zolbrod posed questions that came up for her across the eight years in which she prepared for and wrote the book. They were questions that, it seemed, everyone on the panel had to face at some point during the process. There’s the struggle with the ugliness of associating oneself with one particular life event and its associated labels and connotations. There are questions about who might launch an attack as a result of the story being told. There’s the fear of being called a liar. Further, there’s fear of what happens if the story is not told. What if writers everywhere caved to the pressure and were either silenced or forced into those Hollywood-esque narratives? What if all our recorded stories actually followed that easy-to-follow narrative arc?

Maybe that’s not such a nice fantasy after all.

Suggested Reading List:

Every title by every one of these panelists. Every. Title.

***

Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice named a notable in Best American Essays, she is the Founding Artistic Director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and an assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. 

Contemporary Memoirs or Collections of Essays by Writers of Color: An Incomplete List — Collected by Steven Church

Steven Church has collected an incomplete list on this subject and posted it at his blog. He credits Facebook crowd sourcing and Sonya Huber, Barrie Jean Borich, and Dallas Crow with helping. Thank you, all.

This is a great resource, and I’m sure the list will grow as more people add names.

You can find the link to Steven Church’s list here.

In the Classroom: How Human Behavior Studies Aid the Memoirist by Sophia Kouidou-Giles

Human behavior studies have much to offer nonfiction writers. In my teaching, I work to aid fellow authors to write about themselves and others by presenting a believable picture of character. Together, we study human behavior to draw insights from such fields as psychology, psychiatry, education, sociology, and social work.

Dust off textbooks. Seek librarian recommendations. Search the Internet or use other popular sources at your disposal. These will lend accuracy and authenticity to your writing, in building character, specifying age, describing symptoms, observing dynamics, creating tension, and more. Why not use the art and science that has studied human behaviors? It may help resolve simple or complex decisions for the story teller.

Do you want to introduce the age of a four-year-old in a different way? Look at child development texts.

“How old are you?”

Johnny looked up to his grandmother, “Why?”

When she smiled, he raised four fingers and reported loudly, “four!” [1][2]

Perhaps a character in your story is addicted to a substance and is in recovery. There is a vast literature from which to draw.

The counselor was sympathetic but stern: “Stop using? That is only half the battle. You really need to create a new life, so that everything that brought you to your addiction does not catch up with you again.” [3][4]

How about a character in a psychotic state? Abnormal Psychology provides a description of relevant symptoms, treatment and more. For example, Delusions are fixed beliefs an individual holds even when reality contradicts them.

John spoke with authority, “Jesus told me. I speak in His name.” Then in anger he added, “I have to leave for home.”

“Have you spit out your Thorazine again?” responded the nurse. [5][6]

Here are a few summary points — manuscript and author benefits — of using human behavior studies in your writing.

MANUSCRIPT BENEFITS:

  • A thorough understanding of what is being portrayed, informed by the historical or current knowledge of human behavior studies is crucial to good writing. It promotes clarity and detailed progression on the evolution of a character and the development of a scene.
  • Empathy for the human condition stems from a better understanding of the dynamics of a situation. Descriptions that show the author’s awareness, and Emotional I.Q. contribute to subtlety in writing and potentially greater insight for the reader.
  • A better understanding and empathy for a character may lead to epiphanies and insights that enrich the page. When captured, such epiphanies offer resolution and relief to the reader. That I consider an author’s psychological debt can be gracefully delivered.

 

AUTHOR BENEFITS:

  • At times, reliving a traumatic moment might trigger the author’s defenses. Self-examination deepens the layering in a story when we persist and examine what may be the underlying reaction.
  • In creative non-fiction, we can count on the author to address personal trauma as they build the story arc. In uncovering stressful memories some of the ways we as authors defend ourselves include forgetting, suppressing the detail, experiencing block, and even denial or inaccurate portrayal of the emotional truth. To spark what may need more interior search, description, insight, short of seeking therapy, may be adequately met via the study of human behavior. Readings can provide insights and provoke the author to better express what the page requires.
  • When family challenges the memoirist for his/her perceptions and point of view, the author may feel better prepared to make their case having built up the backup by credible literature.

It’s all about taking advantage of systematic observation and the latest information available, a necessary tool for the thoughtful painter of stories.

Notes

[1] For general reading, consult the following: Shaffer, David R., and Katherine Kipp. Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence, 9th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth [Cengage Learning Series], 2013.

[2] Information on child development by age [from The Center for Parenting Education] can be found here: http://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/child-development/child-development-by-age/#four

[3] For general information, see: Galanter, M.D. ed., Marc and Herbert D. Kleber, M.D. ed.; Kathleen T. Brady, M.D. Ph. D. ed.. Textbook Of Substance Abuse Treatment, 5th Ed. The American Psychiatric Publishing, 2015.

[4] For information on this specific example, see: Bestor, Sheri Mabry. Substance Abuse: The Ultimate Teen Guide. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013. Print. 76-81.

[5] For general information, see: Oltmanns, Thomas F., and Robert E. Emery. Abnormal Psychology. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hal, 2012.

[6] For information on this specific example, see: Xavier, Amador, Ph. D. I Am Not Sick. I Don’t Need Help! How to Help Someone with Mental Illness Accept Treatment. Peconic, New York: Vida Press, 2012. Print. 185-186.

**

Sophia_Portrait_001

Sophia Kouidou-Giles was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, and resides in Seattle, WA. With a BA in psychology and an MSW in social work, she worked in child welfare for 34 years, publishing articles in professional Journals. “Transitions and Passages,” a poetry chapbook was awarded recognition in a juried competition. “Life on Egypt Street” a short story, is included in the Time Anthology; “Walking on Rhodes,” a poem, is published in Voices magazine. Member of AWP and PNWA, she is currently working on poetry and a memoir. Follow Sophia @kouidou and visit her on Facebook.

Assay@NFN15: “Writing the Difficult Other”

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 Sarah Tomlinson, Liz Prato, Sarah Einstein

Sarah Tomlinson: wrote memoir about her eccentric, mentally-ill father – everyone but him realized he was delusional – but her hope was that she had rendered him with enough compassion that people would understand her dad. She says that there was no abuse, but lies, neglect, and abandonment – and notes that people’s reaction was that there wasn’t enough abuse to matter so much

Liz Prato: had written a memoir about her dad’s and brother’s descent into addiction and mental illness, and their suicides within a year of each other, and thought she was done with them. Then, while clearing out father’s house, she found 2 things: a list of all the people he’d had sex with, including the name of her brother, and a list of definitions of words related to pedophilia. How to write about her father now? The father she knew was not a bad man, but molesters and rapists are bad men. How to make sense of this? She read Emerson’s essay “Compensation,” in which he says every evil has its good. She came to a place of compassion – not, “my father is a monster,” but “my father has a monster in him.”

Sarah Einstein: wrote a book about a relationship with a homeless, mentally ill man with whom she had a friendship. How to represent on the page his delusional reality and let it exist as a voice, as his own truth, and not in a way that makes a spectacle or gimmick of it? During a conversation where he’s convinced his sister has died, he mentions he molested her when they were young – this moment was the most tense moment of their relationship, and the book. Einstein wondered whether to omit it, and did for a while, but realized he had said it and it was his to say, and she needed to allow him to speak for himself.

[then turns to roundtable discussion, including audience]

LP: It’s too easy to write the “everyone pick up your pitchfork” piece – there are no pure villains or heroes.

SE: How can you capture moments of tenderness or genius – make these people as well-rounded and complex as possible so readers don’t reduce these people to what they think they already know about molesters/homeless/mentally ill/etc.

LP: example of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

SE: If the person is a sociopath, if there are very negative qualities (cruelty, lack of empathy, etc.), you don’t need to label the person – just put that behavior on the page and let the reader perceive that for themselves. But also ask, in what ways is the person bigger or more than their sociopathy or dysfunction, so we’re not focused on the pathology, but on the bad behavior and its effects on you and others.

ST: her background was in literary fiction and NF, but it was working in ghostwriting that helped her write difficult characters – usually, these were traumatic stories of drug abuse, violence, trauma, and it helped her to help them find the compassion/empathy/complexity, and this in turn helped her with her own memoir.

LP: autobiography is a research-checked factual account, but memoir is the story of what you remember – it might not be totally accurate, but do your best to get it right.

SE: The people who have harmed you have forfeited the right to fact-check you – the fact that they’ve harmed you will inform the reader that the harm has affected how you remember the events.

__________

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “The Essayist as Human”

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Kirk Wisland, Sarah Einstein, Cesar Diaz, Steven Church

Kirk Wisland:  Blogging is satisfying because the immediacy of what is published most closely resembles who we are when we wrote what was published. Wisland is worried that the previous versions of documents from 1997 MS Word might no longer be available because of technological advances. Also, worried that in the desire to write more meaningfully can lead to a desire to seek out the traumatic experiences. Was secretly grateful for writing inspiration after a friend had passed away.  Questions whether it’s fair to write about the dead, because it’s easier than having the reactions from writing about the living. “Maybe it’s the maybe,” he said. By being an essayist, we inherently question ourselves thereby redefining ourselves.

Sarah Einstein: Einstein said she made a mistake. A piece she wrote for an anthology was republished in Salon, with a new headline. When she wrote the piece, it was for an intended audience of an anthology and not for a perhaps less literary crowd. While she received support (and at times inappropriate support), her husband received backlash at a time when there was a death in the family. While she doesn’t regret that she wrote the piece—she had her husband’s permission—she regrets that she published something that would turn out to be so painful to someone she loved. For her, the question about “essayist as human” means learning about your mistakes. Before, when she saw a published piece, she felt comfortable saying whether a person ought be writing or working in academia based on what they’ve written. “I feel like we’re at a moment that we’re we need to think about the essayists humanity.”

César Díaz: Memoirist’s challenge is to gain a reader’s trust , which turns out to be difficult based on the placement of the reimagined world. The memoirist actively manipulates past experiences but readers track at how the writer arrives that the truth in the memoir. How does the memoirist do this? Díaz especially felt that he had to uphold the truth after an MFA workshop likened his life story as a migrant farm-working child as “myth-making” and an elevated way of detaching from reality. He attempted to return to his memoir using only facts. In his research, he discovered that everything he knew was wrong. Finally, he adopted Ondaajte’s idea of the constructed self: that narrative through improvisation. Gornick sees the memoirist’s responsibility as shaping their experience any way so long as the intent remains genuine. This mindset has set him free.

Steven Church: The last couple of chapters of Church’s collection of essays, “Ultrasonic” deal with challenges he faces as a writer. The chapter he reads is called “It Begins with a Knock at the Door.” In the narrative, an elderly neighbor comes to his house asking for help to pull out her older boyfriend out of the bathtub where he fell. After pulling him out of the tub, he feels he clumsily relates to the man by showing off a scar on his leg from his twenties. The elderly man shows off a scar on his leg from surviving war. After feeling that this man’s story is worth more than perhaps writing about flatulence, he accepts that who he is as a writer. 

__________

Patti Wisland is a prose writer and the managing editor of New Ohio Review. 

Assay@NFN15: “Rewriting Those We Love”

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Margot Singer, Lee Martin, Dinah Lenney, David McGlynn, Ann Peters

Margot Singer: This panel examines the balance of big subjects and the personal – when does the personal become too personal? Is it possible or fair to tell the truth? What will happen when you do? She cites the cautionary tale of Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender,” in which his father won’t acknowledge him after the publication of Firebird.

Dinah Lenney: She cites the two opposite impulses of how to deal with this issue: “go tell the story, but tell it with love” versus “fuck ‘em.” She notes the usual things to consider: what are your motives in telling this story? anger/resentment/blame? are you trying to be the hero/victim? All you can do is get it as right as you can get it. But if you don’t wait until everyone’s dead to publish it, what are your rules? She notes that what ends up hurting or pissing off people often is not what you think they’re going to be hurt about, so you can’t always predict. But she says that if art legitimates cruelty, it isn’t worth it – art should strive to be kind – if it isn’t, it isn’t art.

David McGlynn: memoirists tend to write about families because they note that their family stories tend to trump their friends’, because they’ve had a front-row seat to dysfunction. Families so often are held together by silence and “forgetting.” Ask, is the blowback something I can handle? The consequences are rarely as catastrophic as we fear – even when people get pissed, they move on. There’s something inherently hostile and violent about writing about other people, but I will do it again. What matters the most is telling the truth, and a memoir is only good if it’s well-written.

Lee Martin: When you write about the family, you’re trying to make family members come alive again on the page – if you do it with resentment or nostalgia, both are untrue and a betrayal to the people we want to portray. The best path is to practice empathy, to make no more or no less of a person than they are, to try and understand a person from the inside. Strategies to increase empathy and therefore honesty (and thereby decrease betrayal):

  1. move the narrative camera somewhere outside the situation being portrayed.
  2. write about yourself in 3rd person to allow for some more detachment or objectivity.
  3. imagine the other person as a child to see how it changes your understanding of them.
  4. pose a question and speculate on the answers (phrases like “Maybe…,” “Perhaps…,” and “I like to imagine” are your friends here).

Do this writing activity: think of someone who hurt you (a small or a big betrayal) and write about it from your POV as the one who suffered. Then shift the camera using one of the strategies above to see how it changes your understanding of the event.

Ann Peters: Why is it that, when we write about family, they become flatter characters? She shares the experience of writing about her father, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architect and developer, whom she did not want to reduce to an easy dyad or cliché. But we’re often more generous with a literary text or memory than we are with a person in real life, so turning them into characters paradoxically allows them more latitude.

__________

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “It’s a Family Affair: The Exciting/Perilous Task of Writing About our Relations”

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Speakers: Lucas Mann, Mieke Eerkens, Honor Moore, Maggie Nelson and Hope Edelman

Lucas Mann, who wrote about his brother’s death from drug overdose (Lord Fear: a Memoir), read an essay that revealed an aspect of family memoir that then echoed through the presentations that followed. Writing family onto the page changes reality, changes relationships, becomes a kind of death itself. As Mann put it: “I don’t know if I remember my brother anymore. That’s a loss that I’ve only just begun to acknowledge. I think that the act of writing him, of making him, has become the memory.” In this way, writing about the truth subverts the truth itself.

Mieke Eerkens, the panel organizer, spent five years researching her family for a book and what she uncovered changed her perception of her parents. She could see her father’s workaholism as an extension of survival mechanisms he developed as a child in a men’s prison camp and this understanding let compassion replace a sense of personal neglect she had felt as a child. Eerkens also stressed the importance of fairness in exposing flaws, arguing that if she writes of her mother’s dumpster diving then she must equally expose her habit of recycling dental floss. “We must make ourselves vulnerable as well,” said Eerkens.

 Clarifying the divide between the situation and the subject creates space to tell difficult family stories. “The situation is not the story,” said Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter, a memoir that exposes truths about her father’s sexuality that she had no knowledge of while growing up. To get to the story, she gave herself the task of imagining her life without this secret, to consider how the truth might have influenced her own choices.

All this altering of family relations begs the question if these stories need to be written. Books by Maggie Nelson, particularly Jane: a Murder, cross into territory that she admits force “a reckoning that maybe nobody needed to have.” Nelson shared that her partner describes the effect of such scrutiny (for the writing of The Argonauts) as that of “an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.” So telling family stories carries with it great responsibility, sacrifice and impact.

 The last speaker, Hope Edelman, offered five practical steps for navigating the murky waters of family memoir. 1. Don’t assume anything about what a family member will feel shame for. 2. Don’t assume anything about what a family member will object to. 3. Be clear about your intentions. “Revenge is a powerful motivator of human behavior, but a lousy reason to write a memoir,” writes Edelman in her takeaway flyer. 4. You have more power than you realize, so you can be thoughtful about what you include and what you leave out. 5.You have less power than you think, because your publisher’s legal department has some as well.

Collectively the panel offered thoughtful insights on the challenges specific to writing family memoir. What resonated the most for me was the revelation that writing about loved ones can obscure your memories and relationships. The writing itself becomes part of the reality between you and your family. This is part of the genres horror and allure.

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Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She has just completed a free verse cartoon memoir on childhood friendship cut short by murder. 

Where’s My Chum? Looking for Friendship Lit

MardiJoLink

Mardi Jo Link (www.mardijolink.com) is the author of the memoir, The Drummond Girls: A Story of Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance, forthcoming in July from Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing. Her first memoir, Bootstrapper (Knopf) was named winner of the Bookseller’s Choice Award, the Housatonic Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the Michigan Notable Book Award.  She lives in northern Michigan.


“Every great book ever published is about relationships.”

A grad school professor said that to me once, and her words came back to my ears in full audio last year when I was finalizing revisions on my own book. I’d spent a year working on a memoir about my seven best girlfriends, and for comps I’d started seeking out non-fiction about friendship.

Library shelves and bookstore tables soon proved the accuracy of my former professor’s words. In my field trips I found lots of new books about parent-child relationships (perhaps because it was almost Mother’s Day), about marital relationships and love, about work relationships, and even about our relationships with our pets. Dogs mostly, but cats have their fair share, too.

Books about human friendships were surprisingly few. And often the best ones were being described as not about friendship at all but about something else entirely. Continue reading