Lyle May is Reading and Writing As Fast As He Can — on Death Row

This piece was re-posted, with permission, from The author, Lyle C. May, is on Death Row in North Carolina.

In early childhood, writing was this scrawling the symbols of English language with little understanding of their purpose. Large, crooked letters staggered like drunks across the page, jockeying for position and uniformity. My letter R was often backward, the vowels never really touched the bottom line and I couldn’t quite get the hang of the lower case k. Their meaning was a vague thing in my mind. I knew the alphabet made words used in speech and books, but that was all. The power of language, a tiny part of a vast universe, was beyond my experience and unimaginable.

My adolescence was marked by an inability to express my thoughts and emotions. I floundered with how to speak my mind and these unsaid things turned into hungry rats gnawing on my nerves. Communicating as a shy teenager is hard enough, but instead of overcoming my social anxieties and reaching out to those who could help me, I chose less idealistic ways — unhealthy and delinquent ways.

Writing about the difficulties plaguing my life never occurred to me. In my mind there was too much garbage crowding out common sense and good ideas.

My first real understanding of writing as a way of communicating arrived without fanfare. I was locked up in the Maine youth center and had no access to a phone. The only way to reach the outside world was by letter.

Not until my imprisonment on death row at the age of 21 did I begin to fully realize how important writing can be. Initially my letters to friends and family were unclear and fell short of what I wanted to say. How do you explain the situation like facing execution? It took time, a lot of practice, and this overwhelming need to be understood before my writing could evolve enough to help others see from my eyes.

About eight years into my incarceration I was granted the opportunity to enroll in some college courses. Though my education ended with a GED attained when I was 17, I was more than ready to take up the challenge of a higher education. Among the first few things to open my mind was that everything I read had to be conveyed in the clearest possible manner. Demonstrating this in writing went hand in hand with comprehension. Maybe, if I paid more attention in school and didn’t drop out my sophomore year, comprehensive reading and writing wouldn’t have seemed like some new and fabulous skill that swelled my chest with its potential.

It helps that since coming to prison I have fallen in love with reading. I began reading to take my mind away from the things beyond my control. This in turn revealed to me the power of writing to influence minds. Not exactly new, groundbreaking stuff, but to me this was an epiphany. The writing and psychology courses showed me that reading requires reflection and analysis just like our lives do. Understanding the nuances of the English language and value of being proficient with it has greatly improved how I write and think. Writing makes life possible in any circumstance.

In the years since my incarceration I found that writing is a tool more useful than any other, one that’s always existed in my life. Since learning how to use it, writing has become a crucial element of my survival in prison because it’s the only way I can prove my continued existence to the rest of the world. Edward Bulwer Lytton may have said “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but for me it has become the skeleton key for every locked door barring my way. I seek now to find the door it has yet to open, appreciating the power of writing throughout my journey.


That Bird Has My Wings


That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row is Jarvis Jay Masters’ second book, and it comes with endorsements by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Van Jones, author David Sheff, and many others. Although Masters writes of the crimes he’s committed, as well as those he’s innocent of though convicted – and although he writes some about his life on San Quentin’s Death Row – That Bird focuses primarily on Masters’ childhood and coming of age.

Much of what Masters reports is heart breaking: being left to watch over young siblings with no food to feed them, beatings and cruelty of foster care families, being set up to fight for bets by older male relatives, choices he makes against his own best interest. But Masters also describes the love he shared with his sisters, his wonderful first foster parents, the neighbor who silently left food for the children each morning, his caring though drugged mother. When life gave him a chance, Masters was the little boy he was born to be: loving, sweet, curious, responsible.

The story Masters shapes for the first two-thirds of the book lets the reader in very close as the child tries to make sense of his experience, as he learns to protect himself from hurt, and eventually, as he comes to feel most comfortable in institutions. Masters’ telling is honest, well written, deeply (humanly) interesting.

The last third or so of the book is also interesting, honest, and well written, but to me feels tacked on – more like a handful of essays than the continuation of an unfolding story. Perhaps the publisher felt the book needed to include stories from prison itself.

Both Masters and his publisher (HarperOne) seem to want the book to speak out most strongly about the foster care system. An important goal that Masters achieves. But I think the book does even more than this. That Bird shows one life – its huge difficulties and its few gifts – and how a being is shaped by both. (written by Judith Tannenbaum)