A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden

THE MALAHAT REVIEW, AUTUMN 2013

Stephen Reid appeared to be a poster boy for redemption. The acclaimed author of ]ackrabbit Parole married the accomplished writer Susan Musgrave in Kent Institution in 1986, and was paroled the following year. For the next twelve years he seemed, at least to most of us, to be a devoted father and family man, committed to practising the ideals of restorative justice, inventing a new life for himself on Vancouver Island. As he notes in his new book, this all came crashing to the ground in 1999, when he resumed his affection for illicit drugs, quickly became addicted, ran up a huge tab for this excess, and returned to his former occupation of bank robber to pay for his indulgence. But this time the bank robbery did not have the calculated precision of the Stopwatch Gang of his youth. An armed robbery of a Royal Bank in Victoria was followed by a wild chase through city streets, with shots fired, and he was soon arrested, after finding his way into the apartment of an elderly couple. “I return to the living room and sit slumped with the knowledge that my life is over. The couple emerge from the bedroom and introduce themselves as John and Kathy, as if I were some kind of queer guest. Kathy fetches me water — I must have looked thirsty, and John, an old Serbian freedom fighter, rolls me a cigarette.”

Reid was sentenced to eighteen years in prison, and remains there today, with something close to five years to serve. A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden is a nicelv written book, thoughtful and without self pity, that tries to explain how and why Reid gave up what seemed to be a better life, to return to addiction, and to jail. He does not blame his childhood for what has happened to him, and he knows that he cannot pin these crimes on anyone but himself. “1 plead out and although the judge listens to my junkie alibi he knows what everyone else, including me, knows — that we live in the arena of choices and now I'll have to live with this one.”

It's difficult to understand why Reid went back to a self-destructive track of injecting speedballs and committing bank robbery to pay the bills. He hints at some of the logic in describing an annual lunch of poets and writers: “Somewhere before dessert and after my third refusal of wine I began to distance from the comfortable humour of my friends. They were animated about their gardens, happy with their ex-partners, and self deprecating . . . They were smart, sensitive, and sensible people. I saw in them, perhaps wrongly, a coherence, an essential wholeness that I lacked.”

Most of us like to alter consciousness, with red wine, coffee, chocolate, maybe even with cannabis, cocaine, or psychedelics. But what is it that would push the author to go so far beyond the simple pleasure of intoxication, to a self-destructive path of addiction, debt, and robbery? There are essays here that provide some insight — injecting before he became a teenager, followed by years lived in something close to a state of oblivion. Perhaps this is his lot in life — that he must always return to the abyss, in some shape or form. Musing on the decline of prison writing, Reid observes: “Rebuked by the public, prison authors have learned to write with shame, but not about it. Many choose to invert shame; most drown in it.” A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden is a prison memoir of significance. As he writes, “Misfortune earned can become a profound privilege. To know absolute loss, to suffer real guilt, to look back on how you have betrayed most of what you thought of as decent and good — that is a stripped-down place indeed.” — Neil Boyd

the coastal spectator, march 10, 2013

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

This is possibly the saddest book of essays I have ever read. Not sad because the writing is bad; not sad because the author has no insight. But, yes, sad because the essays seem to be written by a man perpetually divided against himself and deeply in pain about the schism.

On the quiet side of the ledger, as illustrated in the collection’s “Epilogue,” hunkers the introspective man, the poetic, sensitive observer: “The years have passed and I have watched the tides come and go, carrying their debris, real and imagined. I have grown old in prison and I am only interested in beginnings these days, but the string becomes harder and harder to find. It seems I am losing the plot of my own life.”

And on the wracked side struts the famously infamous Stephen Reid, the bank robber who revels in his bad-boy exploits, as brought to life in “The Last Score”: “We’re flat out, doing eighty maybe ninety clicks an hour, almost flying velocity on a residential street. I’m wedged out the window, the wind whipping my hair, and for one glorious moment, when that shotgun bucks against my shoulder and all four tires lift free of the ground, I am no longer bound to this earth.”

But of course, gravity always wins: the car lands, the cop on the motorcycle keeps on coming, and Reid’s cocaine-botched June 1999 robbery garners him 18 more years in prison. As these brief samples show, Reid has grown into a writer of both sophistication and energy. Although still haunted by his past, he’s confronted those first early transgressions when he was introduced to morphine at the age of 10 by a pedophile doctor named Paul; he’s lived through his Stopwatch Gang years, outlived his partner-in-crime Paddy Mitchell, contributed to his community, been Susan Musgrave’s husband and watched his daughters grow–always with the spectre of recidivism at his side. .

While Reid hasn’t made his living as a full-time writer for the past 40 years, he is a man who ruminates and a man who writes–and when he’s able to subdue his addictions and the catastrophic decisions that usually follow, he demonstrates genuine talent.

This book of essays is a collection of work printed elsewhere, in Maclean’s, in the Globe and Mail, in an anthology and on salon.com, to name just four venues. I’m glad Thistledown has collected these pieces, even if here and there they could have been edited to pare away repetition. This is an important collection of essays, one that should be read by lawyers and police, by corrections officers and psychologists and, yes, most of all, by ordinary citizens and the politicians who purport to represent them. A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden demonstrates what “inside” really means. It gives us a world shaped by both grief and joy, seen through the eyes a man often yearning to be free of himself.

Victoria Times-Colonist, February 3, 2013

It seems strange to consider that readers might require a reminder of just how good a writer Stephen Reid is.
After all, Reid, a former member of the infamous Stopwatch Gang, came to public recognition with the publication of Jackrabbit Parole, the 1986 novel he wrote while serving time in Kent Institution in Agassiz. When he sent the unpublished manuscript to Susan Musgrave, who was then writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo, the book also formed the initial foundation that led to the formation of one of this region’s literary power couples: Reid and Musgrave were married the same year his novel was published.

The literary light was overshadowed in 1999 when, struggling with the addiction to heroin and cocaine that had plagued his entire life, Reid robbed the Royal Bank in Cook Street Village at gunpoint. Arrested in a nearby apartment after a short chase, Reid was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was released on day parole in early 2008.

Things had come full circle: Reid, bank robber turned celebrated writer, was a bank robber once more.
As he had done previously, however, Reid spent his incarceration writing. The result is A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, a slim, powerful collection of essays that chronicles Reid’s experiences as an addict, a criminal, a writer and a prisoner. It is harrowing, and breathtaking.

Another writer might have used the opportunity to attempt to rationalize his actions, to justify his addictions and the criminal life to which they led him. To his considerable credit, Reid never does. There is not a self-pitying word in A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, nor any attempt to explain away his crimes. Rather, Reid lets his experiences, and his choices, shape the narrative, leaving it to the reader to find connections and understanding.

Reid’s prose is at once muscular and beautiful, clear and plain, but informed with the vision of a poet. There are no wasted words here, but the language is rich and full almost to bursting nonetheless. It is this style, coupled with his candid frankness, that separates A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden from the dozens of addict-memoirs cluttering the shelves.

He writes unflinchingly of events in his life that most authors, and many readers, would turn away from. In the essay Junkie, for example, Reid describes the roots of his addictions:
“The blood broke into two rivulets along the smooth skin of my inner forearm. My head sank back into the new leather of the bucket seat and my body went limp. Paul returned the glass syringe to its coffin-like case and dabbed at my arm with a soft cotton ball. His face swam up to mine, as if to steal a kiss. I felt such a hopeless peace I would have kissed him back, had I known how. On that warm Indian summer day in northern Ontario, I had just been given my first taste of morphine. I wouldn’t turn twelve until the snow fell and melted again the following spring.”

Paul, who introduced 11-year-old Reid to morphine, was “a grown man, a doctor, and a pedophile. The morphine, of course, was a prelude.”

Reid documents his history of abuse with a steady, clear eye, and precise language that neither obscures nor sentimentalizes the horror that he faced. His descent into crime and full-fledged addiction follows in relatively short order, all of it similarly documented. The clarity, the plain-spoken detail, create a subtle, transfixing force.

Similarly, The Last Score, which describes Reid’s return to addiction and to crime in 1999, will add a level of understanding to a story many of us followed in this newspaper and on the radio as it was happening. Again, he doesn’t attempt to justify himself or rationalize his actions:
“He knocked, two haircuts and a shave, and we entered a small airless junkie apartment smelling of toadstools and cat urine. A slow-lidded woman in a housecoat bid me be seated on a sagging couch. It seemed the perfect place to unmake my life, just for this afternoon. Just for today.
“I smoked the heroin and got a go flap.”

To be clear, A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden isn’t all harrowing darkness. There are passages that are laugh-out loud funny, including a description of Reid’s views on women’s changing pubic stylings, and tender, including accounts of his family life and his relationships behind bars. Whatever the tone, though, the book is a stunning read, a gift from the dark. — Robert Weirsma

Robert Wiersema is a Victoria-based bookseller and author. His latest books are Bedtime Story and Walk Like a Man.

Globe & Mail, Saturday, January12, 2013

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.

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.

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

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.