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Prison memoir tackles author’s failings with insight and wit

Stephen Reid


A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden
Stephen Reid

Canada's most infamous bank robber, Stephen Reid, has published a collection of harsh, honest stories about his life in prison. A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden is a brief but affecting book about Reid's occupational hazard: getting locked up in jail. Reid also grapples with big issues, like the nature of addiction and our often inhumane criminal system.

In his 20s, Reid was part of the Stopwatch Gang, along with Patrick (Paddy) Mitchell and Lionel Wright. The three are reputed to have pulled off the largest gold heist in this country's history and robbed more than 100 banks. Their name refers to their use of a stopwatch to time their capers, so they could get out in less than two minutes.

The book's highly cinematic first essay, The Last Score, is a punch to the gut. Reid describes giving in to the throes of addiction and donning a stolen SWAT uniform and a mask that made him look like "bank-robber Barbie" for the 1999 heist that sent him back to jail for his third life sentence (which he's still serving). He dares readers to revile him. Except that his writerly voice is much too charming, eloquent, remorseful and willing to make himself the butt of his own jokes. In other words, he's painfully human.

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He describes always having felt "as separate from this world as a switchblade knife." This sense of detachment, possibly a reaction to protracted childhood sexual assault and lifelong addictions, are what made him able to commit his crimes. When he refers to spending years in solitary confinement, it's noticeably without rancour. The hole is a relief, the physical embodiment of his own inner solitude and a vacation from the messiness of other prisoners.

Given his precise, philosophical, often beautiful use of language, it's no wonder one of his pieces is a short lament on the "criminal" state of prison literature in North America. Nobody in the world writes like Reid. This book isn't your usual chronological tell-all. It is both a gripping read and an intellectual exploration of our flawed penal system.

He gives readers a glimpse behind the penitentiary walls and captures the roller-coaster ride of repeat recidivism. He places the responsibility for his actions on his own shoulders. Even when he writes about the doctor who deliberately injected him with morphine and abused him as an 11-year-old boy, he is, remarkably, not particularly angry. That essay, Junkie, about the earliest years of his struggle with addiction, is heartbreaking, and one of the bravest pieces of non-fiction I've ever read. It's the best thing about the book.

In fact, it seems as if Reid has used this book as his own form of restorative justice, an approach that promotes healing by transforming anger, shame and hurt into "fairness, generosity and accountability." It's the area Reid worked in during his 13 sober years on the outside. And clearly he has done a lot of healing work himself.

Just when the reader starts to think Reid is indulgently self-obsessed, he anticipates that reaction and admits to being diagnosed with narcissistic tendencies. His intelligence staggers. It's easy to imagine him conning people, but it's equally clear he loves humanity, with all its flaws. This book is an ode to the simplicity of life behind bars, and a warning against giving in to rage, loneliness and futility.

Crime and Punishment (2000) is a tirade on the deplorable state of prison writing in North America. The Zen of the Chain is advice to uninitiated prisoners for surviving their first weeks and being transferred between institutions, such as, "A small white box will be tossed into your lap every day. This is lunch," and, "You will feel completely alone, because you are," and, "Grow your fingernails." Bushwacking South of the Border is a meandering look at disappearing pubic hair and concepts of beauty. Brief essays on the shortfalls of prison libraries and voting rights for prisoners feel rushed, as if they could have matured into fuller arguments.

Throughout everything, Reid's enduring love for his family is his life raft. (He's married to poet-novelist Susan Musgrave). The book's last section is a lament about the harm he has done to his most "enduring victim," his daughter Sophie, who was 12 when he was sent to jail this time. But his very last essay, The Art of Dying in Prison, mourns the death of his long-time friend and Stopwatch Gang partner, Paddy. In it, Reid confronts his own impending mortality.

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The reader, who started off unsettled, is now left with a slightly numb sense of hopefulness. "Being behind bars for so much of my life," Reid writes, "has taught me that everything is bearable, that sorrow must be kept close, buried in the secret garden."

Emily Pohl-Weary is an award-winning Toronto author who has developed writing workshops for "at-risk" youth and aboriginal men, many of whom have been institutionalized in the criminal-justice system. Her teen novel, Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, will be published next year.

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