Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice
Interviewed by Cassandra Goldwater
Solstice Nonfiction Reader
Cassandra: After reading Boy With a Knife, I am curious about what you heard in Karter Kane Reed’s talk in 2008 that “changed your life.” You had already corresponded with him by mail and expressed that you overcame your reticence to get involved because he was articulate and strikingly different than “the boy described by prosecutors, the press, and school officials in the town of Dartmouth.” Was it his narration of his story, his “voice” or something else that motivated you to pursue telling his story in the context of the history of how juveniles are treated in the U.S. justice system?
Jean: I had an inkling from the two or three letters that I had received before that January visit that there was a disconnection between Karter’s writing on the page in his letters to me and the descriptions of Karter in the news media. In the news, he was described as a “monster” and the motivations assigned to him had a narrative that went something like this: “heartless, stone-cold killer.” The young man who sent a letter to me and spoke to my students was polite, soft-spoken, and clearly sorry for the horrendous killing of Jason Robinson.
I knew that there was something incredibly important for me about this disjunction but I don’t think I consciously connected to it—the full force of it—until I saw Karter Reed in person and heard him tell his story. After that experience, I was really clear that the truth of who Karter was and what he had done needed to be examined because a person is never the worst moment in his or her life. Someone who commits a crime is more than the crime. He is an entire lived life with a family, a school, a community. That knowledge took me into research, and to how juveniles are treated in the U.S. justice system. Not all at once, of course, but over a period of six years, during which time, Karter and I exchanged more than 100 letters.
Cassandra: Along similar lines, I am curious about what lead you to work with women in prison. It is clear that you feel that literature has the power to change people’s lives (it was key to Reed’s reshaping of his understanding of himself and the wider world). However, your work as an educator in both public schools and college would seem to support that. What drew you to the prison environment? What motivated you to write about that experience?
Jean: Working with women in prison, as I say in Shakespeare Behind Bars, honestly was something I stumbled into. I was offered the opportunity to teach a class in prison. But the way visitors were searched in order to gain access into prison was not with electric scanners in the those days but with a pat search, i.e. someone physically touching you all over, looking at the soles of your feet, inside your ears, lifting up long hair etc., etc. For a newbie, this felt invasive, and it shocked me –such a search was often an epiphany for people who taught in prison in the 80’s and 90’s. I instinctively felt it was a political act for male guards to be in that position with the female prisoners (at the time more than 75% of the guards at Framingham were men, i.e men guarding women with histories of abuse and trauma?). If I could be searched like that, what was it for women inside? Forget the crimes for a minute, just imagine the searches, the way “keepers” can search “the kept.” That knowledge changed me. Each encounter with the system strengthened my understanding of how random many decisions were—taking away a woman’s false teeth because they could be used as a weapon, not letting a woman go back to her unit for dinner with a mustache she had drawn over her lip for a production. I grew over time into an activist who wanted to change conditions.
In terms of the power of art to change lives, I have always believed that. Literature and theatre changed my life. But in the years I was first teaching and directing plays with women, no one else that I knew was doing that work. I saw how women were at the pinnacle of their being when they acted on stage; I saw their compassion towards others, their brilliance, their depth, their insight into character. Art gave them power. I was a pioneer in terms of using Shakespeare in prison, and while many others have taught and directed plays since my first years—1987—I have come to see how understandably lonely I was at the time. I had to write about my experiences because it was impossible to do the women justice without committing words to the page.
Cassandra: How will your work as a prison activist inform your future writing? Do you hope to write more narrative non-fiction about individuals you have met through your work or do you anticipate that your writing will focus more on social justice and public policy?
Jean: For the past fifteen or so years, I have written articles as well as books, taking apart the justice system brick by brick, for many magazines, zines, and blogs. I expect to continue that work, delving into parole, juvenile justice, and many other aspects of justice and injustice. I’ve moved closer to being a prison abolitionist in that I see prisons as we now have them as absolutely not helping anyone. We need a totally different way to heal what causes crime. My work in Changing Lives Through Literature, where probationers read books in groups with judges, probation officers and professors, continues to be a vital part of the way I use my activism. I lead groups and have for more than twenty-five years.
Cassandra: Given your background in drama, can you imagine writing a play reflecting your passion for literature as a way into the perspectives of “other,” the narratives of individuals you have met as an educator, and issues of social justice?
Jean: I have written a play actually, and it was produced at Middlesex Community College. It is called Iraq Monologues, and is about a Marine and his family’s experience with the Iraq war.
Cassandra: What are you working on now?
Jean: I am actually working on something that is too new for me to discuss! But I will say I am venturing into a new genre. I am totally committed to this project and it comes from having gone to more than twenty juvenile lifer parole hearings. That’s all I’ll say now.
I am also continuing to talk about the issues of not sentencing children to adult prisons which is very near to my heart. I speak and give Boy With a Knife book talks around the country, because now more than ever, we need to tell the truth about children who commit violent acts. They are not little adults. They are not monsters. Violent crime is down precipitously and yet our laws have not caught up. Thankfully, Karter Reed, who is out of prison after twenty years, is an example of the truth about most young men who have committed heinous crimes: they want to change; they are remorseful; they want to live meaningful lives to make amends in the only way they can.
JEAN TROUNSTINE is an activist, author and professor emerita at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts whose 6th book is Boy With A Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice (IG Publishing April 12, 2016). It explores the true story of Karter Kane Reed and the injustice of sentencing juveniles to adult prisons.
Trounstine worked at Framingham Women’s Prison where she directed eight plays with prisoners. Her highly-praised book about that work, Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison has been featured on NPR, The Connection, Here and Now, and in numerous print publications here and abroad. In addition, she has spoken around the world on women in prison, co-founded the women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature, an award-winning alternative sentencing program featured in The New York Times and on The Today Show, and co-authored two books about the program. She published a book of poetry, Almost Home Free, and co-edited the New England best-seller, Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out On Love, Loss, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes.
Trounstine is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety in Massachusetts. She takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick for magazines and blogs such as Boston Magazine, Truthout.org, the Rag Blog and Huffington Post.