Fifteen Years of Changing Lives Through Literature

Jean TrounstineRobert P. WaxlerIntroduction: Robert P. Waxler and Jean Trounstine are co-directors of Changing Lives Through Literature, a program that brings the humanities into the criminal justice system, engaging judges, probation officers, and probationers in conversations about books, stories, and poems. Studies have shown that probationers who participate in the program are less likely than others in the criminal justice system to re-offend. This finding has spurred the expansion of the program from its first site, the New Bedford District Court, to a number of other courts in Massachusetts; to seven other states, including Texas; and to Great Britain. Waxler, Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, has published a number of works, including Losing Jonathan, an account co-authored with his wife, Linda, of the loss of their beloved son to heroin. Jean Trounstine, Professor of Humanities at Middlesex Community College, is the author of

Shakespeare behind Bars: One Teacher’s Story of the Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison, and other works. The two have collaborated on two books: Changing Lives Through Literature, an anthology of stories used in the program, and 
Finding a Voice: The Practice of Changing Lives Through Literature. A related feature on the Changing Lives Through Literature website is on page 2 of this issue of Mass Humanities.

MFH Assistant Director Kristin O’Connell interviewed Waxler and Trounstine by email.

Kristin O’Connell: Bob, What led you to propose a literature discussion program for probationers in the New Bedford District Court?

Robert Waxler: It started for me while on a summer seminar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities at Princeton in the early 1980s. We were exploring the relationship between literature and society, how literature was becoming increasingly marginalized in the culture, how science and technology, quantitative analysis, and images rapidly flickering across screens had all gained overwhelming power and authority in the American psyche. By contrast, I deeply believed in literature, the power of language, the depth of the imagination. What could be done to demonstrate that literature could still make a difference? I wondered.

A decade or so later, in 1991, I saw an opportunity. After a tennis match with my friend Bob Kane, we sat down to talk. Bob was serving as a district court judge in New Bedford. He was disturbed by what he characterized as “turnstile justice,” sending offenders to jail, then seeing them again before his bench, headed back to jail.

Let’s try an experiment, I suggested. Take eight to ten men coming before you over the next few weeks, and instead of sending them back behind bars, sentence them to a literature seminar at the University. I’ll get the room on campus, I told him, choose the books, and facilitate the discussions. This was the model for Changing Lives Through Literature: a professor, judge, and probation officer coming together with criminal offenders to talk about good literature on a college campus.

Bob and I both believed it was worth a try. It took considerable courage for a judge to agree that reading and discussing good literature were worthy alternatives to a jail sentence. In addition, I asked him to try to choose tough guys with significant criminal histories. If this experiment did work—and I was sure it would—I didn’t want detractors claiming that we had stacked the deck by choosing offenders with minimal records.

That was the beginning of the program. Judge Kane, with the help of Wayne St. Pierre, a wonderful probation officer (PO), chose eight men who had 145 convictions, many of them felonies, to come to the UMass-Dartmouth campus that fall.

They were, in fact, “tough guys,” ranging in age from 18 to 44, and with levels of education ranging from eighth grade to community college. They were all bright, though, and quickly got involved, offering some amazing insights into the stories. After the first series of seminar sessions, we knew we had to continue with the project. It was clearly making a difference.

KO: How would you describe that difference?

RW: We saw that reading and discussing good literature could move people, give them energy, offer them a direction. An early longitudinal study of the program, for example, found that offenders going through CLTL had a recidivism rate of only 19% compared to a control group with a rate of 45%. Those are important statistics to consider when measuring a program like this one. To me the numbers have never been crucial, though. It is the change in the qualitative value of a life that interests me.

In that first CLTL group, there was a young man, Jeff, who was a serious drug dealer, very bright, thrilled by the rhythm of the tough streets. After a few sessions, Jeff came in one night and told us, as we gathered to begin discussing Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, that he had found through these sessions something as exciting as the streets: reading and talking about books. Jeff had started to read to his three-year-old daughter as well. That was the kind of difference we glimpsed from the beginning. Jeff, by the way, had only an eighth-grade education.

We have had over 4000 offenders go through the CLTL program now, and we have countless anecdotes like this one. CLTL is not a magic bullet, of course. People sometimes fall back, relapse, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t made a difference even for them. They now know what good literature can do.

I recall another man, call him Anthony, coming into the seminar room one night after we had read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Anthony told us he had been walking down Union Street in New Bedford, anxious and depressed, wrestling with his addiction, not wanting to return to drugs. He came to the corner near his old neighborhood, ready to make the turn. But he stopped, thinking about Santiago, the Old Man, and the battle he fought in the throes of his pain and suffering. It was as if Anthony heard the voice of Santiago at that moment. “I thought if Santiago could endure what he did,” Anthony said, “then I could walk down Union Street, one more day, rather than make that turn into the neighborhood.”

KO: Jean, how was the program expanded to include women?

Jean Trounstine: A year after the “Bobs” began doing CLTL in New Bedford, I heard about the program. I was working at Middlesex Community College in Lowell as a humanities professor and also teaching writing and literature classes at Framingham Women’s Prison, where I eventually directed eight plays (with major grants for three years from the MFH). A friend who worked at the prison heard Judge Kane speak. I was excited about Changing Lives Through Literature because it was philosophically similar to what I was already doing; it used the arts and humanities to increase self-awareness, social skills, and self-esteem and to deepen one’s connections to others.

I enlisted an administrator of my college to drive with me to meet Judge Kane and talk about beginning a women’s CLTL program in the Lowell area. From my Framingham experience, I knew that women offenders would respond heartily to this program—a chance to get outside of their daily grind and to see themselves and their behavior in a new light—and that there would be different issues for women than for men. I also suspected that working with women outside of prison would be different from working with incarcerated women. Women in prison have too little to do; they take to education partly because they starve for activities in a very lonely environment. Those on probation, in contrast, have too much in their lives. They are often single parents battling addictions, poverty, abusive family situations, and low self-image.

After some discussion, Judge Kane enlisted Judge Joseph Dever of the Lynn District Court and our first probation officer, Valarie Ashford-Harris. Our first program met in the office of the Middlesex Community College president. We soon realized that because there are fewer women than men in the criminal justice system, we needed to expand, so we began to work in the Lowell District Court as well.

KO: Did that first group of women respond as you had hoped?

JT: At first, I felt concerned since I was less intimately connected than I’d been with my students behind bars. For women on probation, struggling to keep off the streets, I was one more responsibility to contend with. But soon I began to see that they were yearning to come to the class, and that the discussions meant as much to them as the readings. During our class time, the judge and their POs looked at them as thinkers—not as lost souls or tramps or washed-up mothers. But it is precisely because there are POs, judges, professors and offenders in the group (the team concept, so integral to CLTL) that the program participants begin to grow. They feel recognized in a community where they have often felt scorned.

The most important aspect of the program, I think, is that it offers a space for reflection in people’s lives. Women in the criminal justice system, by and large, have no space. Two women in my current class live in shelters. Two others have been dumped by men and manage to care for their children with or without the help of their own parents. These women literally have never heard of the concept of “a room of one’s own.” When we spend two hours talking, their issues take a back seat to the world of the book. It is a luxury they’ve never had before—to have room and time. What also makes a difference is that there, in that sacred space, they are valued by authority figures, and their voices are heard. They begin to recognize that they have voices worth listening to.

KO: As you’ve overseen the program’s development and expansion, have your observations led to any significant changes in that model? What have been your hardest challenges?

JT: There were many skeptics along the way: POs who saw the program as a “soft” (instead of a “smart”) approach to crime, and judges who feared the ridicule of their peers. Dropout rates have not been insignificant. But bolstered by anecdotal evidence of success from our probationers and by our own faith in the program, we decided, with our judges, to try to obtain state funding to expand the program. With the help of Executive Director David Tebaldi and Associate Director Gail Reimer of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, we began to get visibility through news articles and a program that we presented at the State House. In 1994, the Legislature awarded the first public monies to develop CLTL programs throughout the state.

As new programs began in Massachusetts and in other states, practitioners found their own ways of developing CLTL. Some of us expanded the original model—six sessions over twelve weeks—to seven sessions over fourteen weeks or ten weekly sessions. Some of us added poetry or nonfiction to our staple novels and short stories. As CLTL expanded to Dorchester, Roxbury, Framingham, Concord, Cambridge, Worcester, and Woburn and beyond—to Texas, Arizona, Kansas, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, California and even to England—we saw that our strength was in our flexibility. Co-ed programs sprang up. Programs in prison were established. Juvenile programs were initiated. Many instructors added writing to their classes. The model was adaptable, but what remained at the core was discussion of literature.

In terms of the most difficult challenges, certainly maintaining programs is an issue. Without secure funding, we have had a year or two where we all worked for free and did not have the money for training, which we try to have twice a year. But what I find most challenging is trying to make ourselves ask the important questions: Can we really make a significant difference in people’s lives? How can we improve our program? Whom can we look to, besides our own personnel, for guidance? What will help us make a larger impact?

On a personal level, I miss the women after each group ends and always feel we need more time. I also wish we had the funding to offer a Part II, a second session or a follow-up program that would continue to inspire. I often feel we are just touching the tip of the iceberg.

But what keeps me going is students like Kim. Kim came to CLTL with a long record, including prison time. She had been strung out on drugs, could hold down a job but was often secretive, got high at work, was engulfed in her own life and impervious to others, and couldn’t manage a good relationship. Most of the men she was attracted to were abusive or abrasive or just not interested in much outside of drinking and drugging. Kim had a tough demeanor, and from the things she said during the CLTL classes, it was clear that her childhood had been rough. After CLTL, Kim wrote: “I’ve changed my personal attitude about expressing myself. I feel comfortable. I feel sincere. I feel and see myself changing. A lot of self awareness—how opinionated, how extreme, how vulnerable.”

She took some important steps in CLTL on her road to a better life. She allowed herself to learn and to be open to the process of reading and reflecting during the sessions. I remember how surprised she was when Judge Dever, a man she never imagined would give her the time of day, actually listened to her intently as she discussed her reactions to Pearl in Anne Tyler’s novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Kim said she understood and admired Pearl in spite of the character’s seeming coldness, because Pearl had raised her children by herself, after a man had left her. After CLTL, Kim went on to Middlesex Community College and graduated, worked toward a BA in Psychology at UMass Lowell, and kept up with AA and NA. She fell in love, got married, bought a house, became a stepmother, and had her own children. None of these steps was easy for Kim. She struggled every inch of the way to stay off drugs and alcohol, to keep perspective, to handle her emotions. Kim used CLTL in the best possible way, understanding that she was part of a community and that she had the power to build community.

The heart of the program as I see it has always been in the imagination and its ability to inspire and create hope: a yearning for getting beyond one’s limited worlds, stepping into the shoes of another, initiating new behavior and seeing the road to change.

KO: Kim’s story, like those of “Jeff”’ and “Anthony,” illustrates the kind of personal transformation that Bob hoped for when he conceived the program. The individual experience remains at the heart of your work. But it seems clear that from very early on, you saw the program as not just a potentially life-changing opportunity for participants, but also a model of a social ideal. In Finding a Voice, you write: “When we talk about changing lives . . . we are also talking about a vision of an inclusive society.”

RW: I am convinced that literature offers us the best opportunity we have to keep ourselves and our community human. It is not just the criminal offenders who glimpse this. Judges who participate in the reading and discussions have described CLTL as the most enriching experience of their own long careers. Probation officers are often inspired and rejuvenated by the process of reading and discussion. There are times around the CLTL table when all our social roles fade away, when the free flow of language leads us to a moment of equality, and then we all hear the beat of the human heart.

Nathaniel Hawthorne reminds us that the first signs of an established community are often the cemetery and the jail. The cemetery is perhaps the boundary, the limit of our mortality in this context. But for most of the inmates, the jail is only a temporary stay, a marginal position. They will return to the community. It is the silence from the grave, though, that calls to all of us already in the community to open ourselves to those other living voices, as marginal and dispossessed as they may be. For those other voices are also ours. We need to listen to each of them if we are to know ourselves.

To me, that is the meaning of “human community,” the obligation of democracy: to find a way to open the closed spaces that stifle the rich variety of the human voice, to allow people the opportunity to name themselves, to create their own story in the midst of other stories, in the flow of the community. I believe that the best measure of a democratic society is how inclusive it is, not how exclusive it has become. Reading and discussing good stories point us in that direction, at least for a while.


©2006 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Fall 2006