Phyllis Bowdwin on The Moth Portland Mainstage

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Phyllis Bowdwin, we hear about a time she encountered an abusive mime, and her decision to then cut this person – so to speak – down to size. In one sense, it’s a strange story, but the underlying theme of someone not being respected, and then discovering a new side of themselves during the experience, is a common one for personal storytelling.

Note the passion in her voice and the vivid descriptions that she offers. You feel as though you were there in the crowd watching the event unfold. Now, think of your own life. Was there a situation or event in which you discovered something different about yourself? Maybe a newfound strength that you could rely upon going forward. Such stories inspire others to ask that question about their life.


It’s 1979, and summer in New York City. That was 38 years ago, when I was being interviewed for a promotion from secretary to coordinator of daytime casting at ABC.

I wore my new silk blouse, matching slim skirt, and two-inch yellow sling back heels. I thought I was ready. Although there was some who thought I wasn’t tough enough to hold onto a job like that.

And somewhere in a tiny corner of my mind, there was a part of me that suspected there, that they might be right. I even had a secretary come up to me and say, “Phyllis, you’re too nice.” To which I responded, “Thank you.”

In any case, I was meeting a friend for lunch across the street before my two o’clock interview. And when I got there, I found hordes of people spanning the length and the width of the sidewalk in front of the building, three people deep.

But I found a gap, cut through it, and when I got into the center of this human oval, something came up behind me, grabbed me, prevented me from moving, pinning my arms to my sides. And I looked over both shoulders to see if I could find out what it was, but I didn’t see anything, so I started to struggle.

And the more I struggled, the tighter the grip became. And then I looked to the sea of faces for some clue, some information that would help me to understand what was holding me, what was going on, but they were just placidly chewing and eating their lunch and staring at me.

Suddenly, the pressure was released and a set of rough hands groped me in every part of my body and then pushed me in my lower back. I stumbled forward almost falling, but I regained my balance and I turned around to find a six foot mime leering at me.

He was in full dress with the beret, the face paint, the polar shirt, the suspenders, the black pants, and the very comfortable sneakers. He was beckoning to me and slapping his behind, inviting me to hit him, and I took the bait.

I wrapped the strap of my purse around my hand, and I went after him and I swung, and just as my purse was about to connect, he bounced to another side of the oval and leered at me again, and beckoned me a second time, and padded his behind and wagged it at me as an invitation to come and try again, and I did.

And this time, I swung so hard that when he darted out of the way for the second time, the momentum pulled me forward, and I almost stumbled and fell. And then the people started to laugh,
and I was feeling like a real fool.

So when he beckoned me for the third time, common sense prevailed. Slim skirt, heels, sneakers, I’m outmatched. “You got it,” I said, and I turned and walked away and tried to go up those stairs to get into the building when he rushed up behind me and grabbed my behind and squeezed it, and then darted to safety down further in the oval, and people started to laugh.

And I just stood there as waves of humiliation and rage ran through my body. And I’ve finally got myself together, got up the stairs, got into the building, got to the cafeteria where they was serving my favorite, turkey tetrazzini.

And I went through the motions, paid for my food and sat at the table, but I couldn’t eat or speak, I had just been blindsided, bullied and blatantly violated by a strange man in the street with the approval of hoards of other strangers.

And I was very sure that they had rewarded him handsomely for what he had just done to me. And the thought that I had no way to protect or defend myself, made me feel so powerless that I wanted to cry, so I just sat there.

Then I remembered something that I might have at the bottom of my purse that I bought from a 99 cent store 4 months prior as a joke. And I started digging down into my purse, and the minute my fingers touched that cold, hard canister, I realized that I might have some options after all.

I picked it up, I wrapped my napkin around and then I said, “Got to go,” and turned and got back outside to see if he was still there, and of course he was. And I worked my way to the front of the crowd, because it had swollen to five people deep, to see what he was up to.

And just as I looked up, a beautiful blonde in a pretty, red dress cut through the crap, just as I had, and just as she was about to mount this terrace, he snuck up behind her, and as she raised one foot, he insinuated his way between her legs and stood up, essentially mounting her on his lower back like a rider on a horse.

He reached under her dress, grabbed her legs and proceeded to gallop around the oval with this woman’s hair flying, arms flailing,
holding onto her purse while trying to keep from falling backwards. When he let her down, he promptly lifted her dress up over her head and held it there to the hoots and the whistles of the men.

And when he finally let her go, she staggered into the building and quickly disappeared. And I said to myself, “Is this 1979 in New York City, or have I been dropped into “The Twilight Zone”?

How could this be happening? Where are the police?”

And as I said that, this elderly gentlemen, tall, handsome, distinguished man, stepped into the oval with an old woman in tow, she was holding onto the back of his jacket, and he strolled over to the mime and she peered out at the mime, cringed, and darted back.

And I said to myself, “Now, what did he do to this old woman that would have her cringing at the sight of him?” And sure enough, the old man started shaking his finger in the mime’s face, and the mine feigned innocence. The hands and shoulders went up in the air like he was the victim. And he put on this terrible, sad face and mimed crying and someone in the crowd yelled, “Boo boo, leave the mime alone.”

And the crowd picked up the chant, “Boo boo, leave the mime alone.” And the old man looked up startled into the hostile, menacing eyes of the wolf pack, consisting of executives, clerks, messengers, a UPS driver, a postal employee, even a hot dog vendor selling his food, was enjoying the spectacle.

And the old man shook his head sadly. Gently took the old woman by the hand and led her out of the crowd. And that’s when I got it. This was nothing but a big show. This was theater in the round, and every unsuspecting woman who cut through the crowd became a player, whether she wanted to or not.

She became the catch of the day on the mime’s lunchtime menu,
subject to any form of abuse he chose to cook up to feed vicariously the appetite of his patrons. And so when he started looking around for a new player, I stepped back into the human arena and waited.

He spotted me, he came towards me, and as he got closer, his eyes narrowed, and I couldn’t tell whether it was because of his recognizing me from before, from what he had done to me, or whether he was strategizing how he was going to launch this frontal attack because his MO was to play dirty pool, and sneak up behind the woman and catch her off guard.

But when he got two feet away, I lifted my can of pepper spray and I sprayed him in his face. Yes, yes, and his eyes got wild and he reached for my throat, and I took two steps back, and I sprayed him again and again. I sprayed him like a roach.

And then he began to cough and wheeze and sneeze, and he started staggering towards the street, and his loyal patrons pardon and let him go. He wound up on the hood of a parked car and I stood there and enjoyed watching him wheeze and sneeze.
And I was doing that, something karate-chopped my right hand. It’s another mime.

And this one is twice the size of the other one. And this hulking Goliath of a man is glaring at me like he wants to kill me. And we both hear my canister rolling slowly, but noisily down the sidewalk and he lumbered towards it. And I whirled around, and I went after it. And the two of us scrambled to get to that canister,
and I got there first.

And he moved towards me, and I took a wide stance and I got all the way down and I started rocking and I said, “You want this, motherfucker?” “Come and get it.”

He stopped cold in his tracks and we looked at each other, both knowing that if he ever got his hands on me, he could break me in two. But that day I had had enough and seen enough pushing and grabbing and groping. That day I was prepared to die. And I wasn’t leaving the planet alone, I was taking him with me.

He must have seen it in the rockin’ already in my eyes because they was saying, “Kill the mime.” Because he backed up, turned around, and disappeared back into that crowd. And by now, the spray is starting to spread to his patrons and they are coughing and wheezing and sneezing and quickly disperse without leaving a dime in his beret.

So I dropped my canister back in my purse, and I stood up, only to realize that I had bent the heel on my shoe. And I had split my seam on my skirt all the way up to my behind, and I had an interview at two o’clock. So I hobbled back across the street, and I got on that elevator and got to my office and grabbed my scotch tape and my stapler. I rushed into the ladies’ room, locked the door, took off my skirt, turned it inside out and pinched that seam back together.

I pinched and stapled and pinched and stapled until I got that whole thing closed.Then I taped down one side with the scotch tape, and the other side, and then one going straight down the center in the hopes that no one would ever know what had just happened across the street.

I went to my desk and I reached in my bottom drawer for a pair of flats that I always keep there, and put them on, and waited for that call from personnel. And when they called me, I went upstairs, marched into that office and aced that interview and got the job.

Oh yes.

Oh yes.

And that was the day that I got in touch with my other side. Now, she doesn’t make many appearances, but she’s available on an as need basis. And I call her my quiet fire.

And we both thank you.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

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Leonard Lee Smith on The Moth Mainstage at the Paramount Theatre

The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.

In this story, as told by Leonard Lee Smith, we are treated to a narrative of how his Granny brightened the holiday season despite his mother’s divorce and the subsequent move from Alabama to Southern California.

Even though we’re watching his talk on video, Leonard’s delivery is one that can make us feel as though we’re sitting in his living room. You hear the emotion in his voice, yet the emotional swings are not dramatic. It’s subtle, yet powerful.

He allows us to be there when opening each heavily reinforced cardboard box filled with mounds of homemade Christmas treats. And he brings us full circle when he tells us about hanging Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on his own door during the holidays.

How did you experience the holidays when growing up? Was there someone in your life who made the experience special? It may have been a family member, as was the case with Leonard, but it could also have been a friend who altered the spirit of the season.


It was Christmastime 1974. I was ten years old, but I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas that year.

The previous spring my mother and the man who was to become my stepfather – when all the divorces had been finalized and he and my mother could marry – had moved us from rural central Alabama to sunny Southern California. My brother and I were leaving behind our father and all our extended family. This would be my first Christmas away from Alabama.

My beautiful and elegant mother took to California like a swan to a royal lake. My soon-to-be stepfather was a California native. My very athletic little brother reveled in a temperate climate that allowed him to be outside eleven months of the year.

I, however, was a fat, awkward child with a high-pitched voice and a heavy southern accent. I was having extreme difficulty with the transition to a West Coast lifestyle. My first day at my new school, I walked to the front of my fourth-grade class to introduce myself. All I said was my name and where I was from, and the class erupted in laughter, with jeers of “He talks funny” and “He has a weird accent.”

It took the teacher nearly two full minutes to restore order, and she was angry at me for having caused a disruption. I was so disillusioned after that first day that instead of walking home after school, I went to a nearby gas station and used a phone booth there to try and place a collect call to Granny Smith, my paternal grandmother.

She was my biggest ally. I was going to ask her if I could return to Alabama and live with her and if she would send me the money for a bus ticket home. But despite several attempts the line was busy and I never get through. My mother was always encouraging, nagging, and badgering me to lose weight and always trying to help with that endeavor with whatever the latest diet craze was.

She had been a fat child herself, but with puberty she had gained height and lost weight and undergone the proverbial ugly-duckling transformation to become a great beauty in high school. She saw weight loss as the panacea of all problems and believed it to be the key to my happiness. She was very relieved to have me away from the annual holiday sugar binges and weight gain that my Granny Smith’s cooking provided.

Granny Smith was, for me, everything good about Christmas. Her language of love was food. She was an excellent baker and candy maker. She would cook for weeks in preparation for Christmas Eve, when all of her children and grandchildren would gather at her house.

Every favorite dish, dessert, and confection had been made to specification. Her table and sideboard groaned under the weight of all of the food. My brother, my cousins and I would burst through her kitchen door, brimming with anticipation, our arrival announced by the sound of five silver bells suspended from red velvet ribbons hung on a plastic poinsettia bouquet on the door.

Her house was tiny and saturated with tacky Christmas decorations and cigarette smoke. But to my childhood aesthetic, it was glorious. She sewed new pajamas for all of her grandchildren. She scoured newspaper ads, catalogs, and stores all over town to get us exactly the toys we had requested. She was interested in me and my happiness. She was my resilience. She was magical, and I missed her desperately.

It was Sunday evening, and I was moping around the house, dreading Monday and the return to school. Fortunately, there was only one week left until the Christmas break. I was longing for my familiar southern Christmas. That Thanksgiving we had spent with my step-father’s extended family. He and my mother had finally gotten married in Vegas over the summer.

His family were polite, kind people, but I did not know them and fit poorly into their established routine, and I feared that Christmas would be more of the same. The phone rang. It was Granny Smith. She often took advantage of the discounted long-distance rates after 7:00 p.m. on Sundays.

She spoke with my brother Todd and I chatted for nearly half an hour, asked us about our life, and school, and how things were going, assured us she had gotten us the toys that we wanted and they would be there by Christmas. But before we hung up, she asked to speak to our mother. This request made my brother and me very anxious.

When our parents separated they didn’t so much dissolve a marriage as declare war on each other. My brother and I knew that the campaigns and battles of this war could be long and brutal. My mother considered Granny Smith to be in the enemy camp. They maintained a civil but strained relationship. My brother and I were always worried that hostilities might erupt whenever they spoke to each other.

Granny Smith informed my Mother that she had sent a Christmas package and that it should arrive in the coming week. My mother said, “Thank you, but you didn’t have to do that. It’s very expensive to ship things across the country. I hope you did not have to spend a lot of money.” Despite their differences my mother understood and respected that Granny Smith was a woman of very modest means. Granny had been a widow for nearly thirty years and worked mostly menial jobs. For her, money was always scarce.

Granny said, “It wasn’t very expensive at all, and I was happy to do it.” They exchanged polite but tense pleasantries, wished each other Merry Christmas, and then said good-bye, and my brother and I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure enough, on Thursday afternoon after school the phone rang, but it wasn’t the US Postal Service – it was the Greyhound Bus Lines calling to say we had a package waiting at the bus terminal in Claremont, California.

My mother said to the clerk on the phone, “I didn’t even know that Greyhound shipped packages.” The clerk said, “Oh, yes ma’am, and we’re much cheaper than the US Postal Service because we don’t deliver door-to-door.” We have some of the cheapest rates around. My mother was a little annoyed by this since the bus station was nearly ten miles away. But the clerk assured her that the bus station was open twenty-four hours a day and that there was someone on duty at the shipping desk around the clock. We could pick the package up at any time.

So after supper we drove to the bus station. We went in to see the clerk. He confirmed that we had a package. And then he said to my mother, “You can pull your car around into the loading bay.” My mother said, “What for?” He said, “The package is too large to hand over the counter.” My mother said, “Are you sure you’ve got the right package?”

This irritated the clerk and he learned over the counter and addressed my brother and me and said, “Are you guys Lee and Todd Smith?” We nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Then this package is for you. I’ll meet you around back.” We drove us around to the loading bay, and the shipping clerk came to our car with a hand truck carrying a heavily reinforced cardboard box, large enough to hold a dishwasher or small refrigerator.

He said, “This barely makes it inside the maximum freight dimensions and weight restrictions,” as he hoisted the box into our trunk and went to get some twine to tie the trunk lid closed. My brother and I were giddy with anticipation on the drive home, wondering what the box contained. Our mother was not in such a good humor. She knew her ex-mother-in-law well and was suspicious of the box.

When we got home, we had to go inside and get our stepfather – the box was too heavy for us to get out of the trunk. He grunted and complained as he set the box down in the living room, and said, “What the hell did she send, a jeweler’s safe?” My brother and I tore into the box, and the smell of our granny’s house wafted into the air: a combination of fried meat, grease, furniture polish, and cigarette smoke.

There beneath wadded newspaper and excelsior was our southern Christmas. There were presents wrapped in colorful paper and bows to go under the Christmas tree. Neatly folded in brown paper was a new set of pajamas for both of us. There were also two five-count packs of Fruit of the Loom underwear in the appropriate sizes for us both. There was a countless number of decorative tins and repurposed Cool Whip containers.

We opened them to find mounds of homemade Christmas treats: Divinity. Fudge. Boiled chocolate cookies. Parched peanuts. A massive container of “nuts and bolts,” which is what southerners call homemade Chex Party Mix, but to which no prepackaged Chex Party Mix will ever compare.

A whole fruitcake. A chocolate pound cake. She even included our traditional stocking stuffers of candy bars, chewing gum, citrus fruits, and pecans and walnuts in the shell. The box was as bottomless as Mary Poppins’s satchel. As every sugary confection came out of the box, my brother and I shrieked with delight and our mother moaned in defeat.

Mother tried a last-ditch effort to hide all the confections and dole them out a few at a time, but each evening when our stepfather would come home, he would begin to search for them and our mother’s scheme would be thwarted. Eventually she just gave up and just left it all out on the kitchen counter.

Each Christmas that we spent in California, Greyhound would call and say that our package had arrived. Over the years many treasures arrived in the box: hand-crocheted afghans, an heirloom family quilt, homemade Christmas decorations. A check to help with the purchase of my first car. For me it was always the best part of Christmas. Even after I moved out of the house, the box continued to arrive. My friends and roommates at college were always astounded and delighted by the contents of the box.

My grandmother was able to package and ship magic and love. Granny is long gone and missed more each year. Since her death I have discovered in conversations with my cousins that Granny came to the rescue of all of her grandchildren at one time or another, softening what would have been hard and harmful emotional landings. She did it in such a way that we each thought we were her favorite. Granny had endured a sad and difficult childhood with a mother who suffered from mental illness. She understood the importance of a child having an ally when a parent fails them.

Each year, a few days after Thanksgiving, I hang Granny’s plastic poinsettia bouquet with the bells on my front door to announce the arrival of holiday guests. I have mastered many of her recipes, and last year finally managed a very respectable batch of divinity. When the Christmas season arrives, I lovingly remember Granny and cherish that the magic and resilience she gave me.

And during the holiday season, when I see a Greyhound bus on the highway, I think to myself, in the belly of that machine may travel some child’s Christmas.

[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]

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contact me to discuss your storytelling goals!

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Pixar Storytelling – It Starts With An Idea

If you haven’t seen a Pixar animated movie, I’ll assume you have been living on a (nearly) deserted island. Their first feature film was Toy Story, released some 25 years ago. After 22 films, $14 billion in box office revenue, and an acquisition by Disney, they’re still creating films that touch our heart and change the way we think about the world.

You can read more about the fascinating history of Pixar, but in short, they are master storytellers. And while it’s doubtful that your personal story will end up in a Pixar movie, the process they use to create their films can teach us a lot about the craft of storytelling – characters, plot, emotion, wisdom, life.

It all begins with an idea.

It’s the first thing I ask someone who says they have a story to tell. What’s the idea, or the point, or the message that is driving your story. If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?

Luckily, the creation of your story is not as complex as the Pixar process – no need to hire any simulation technical artists – but a takeaway from this welcome video is the need for revision / editing along the way. Nothing comes out perfect the first time. It’s an iterative endeavour that enriches your story, bit by bit.

The power of story is that it has an ability to connect with people on an emotional level.

Even when creating a fictional story, the writer needs to put an element of themselves into the narrative as a way to convey how they’re feeling. The same holds true in your story. It’s not just a sequence of events. That’s rather boring. The audience needs to know how the experience felt to you.

Check in next week for another glimpse into the world of Pixar storytelling!

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The Three Dimensions of Public Speaking

Humans have been making public speeches for thousands of years, but until recently, the number of folks doing so has remained rather small, in single digits percentage wise. Unless you were a politician, business leader or social activist, you were in the audience listening, but much has changed in recent decades.

With the advent of venues such as Creative Mornings, the TED Conference and TEDx events now held around the world, as well as storytelling podcasts such as The Moth or The Narrators, and story conferences like the Future of StoryTelling or The Power of Storytelling, the cachet of storytelling has never been greater.

More importantly, public speaking / storytelling skills have become fundamental attributes for any employee working in the commercial and/or nonprofit sectors. If you can’t tell your story, as well as the stories of your organization, customers and stakeholders, you’re at a disadvantage. So what makes a speaker impactful?

There are many factors that go into crafting and delivering stories that inform, enlighten, even challenge a listener, but here are three dimensions that form the foundation of public speaking. (p.s. they’ve been relevant for a few millennium)

The Three Dimensions of Public Speaking

Often referred to as the KLT Factor, the marketing world has long touted the idea that consumers buy products from someone they know, and like, and trust.

But if we traveled back to ancient Greece we might hear Aristotle speak about rhetoric and his take on ethos, pathos and logos (ethics, emotions and logic) as key attributes possessed by great speakers and found in moving speeches.

The discipline of business decision making often refers to the combination of head, heart, and gut (intellect, emotion and intuition).

As you can see, these parallels point to a speaker’s credibility or trustworthiness, combined with a story’s ability to touch us emotionally, and for the narrative to make sense. It’s the combination of all three that creates story magic.

To see how it’s done, take a moment to spin up Robin Steinberg’s TED Talk that explores the bail system in America – how it works, what’s wrong with it, and her solution to the problem.

Robin’s personal story establishes credibility on the topic, as it’s her profession. She also spends time explaining how the system works, or doesn’t, and uses the experience of someone who was victimized by an unfair system to bring out the emotional side of the story. Thus, we come to believe her, and her argument.

As you craft a story of your own, make sure you address each of these critical dimensions. Will an audience place their faith in you through a bond of trust? Will they feel your story in a way they can relate to? Will their intellectual side be satisfied with the logic of your proposition? If one of these factors is missing, their confidence in your idea will be too.

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Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row

I’ve spent a lot of time in prison. Not as an inmate, but instead coaching inmates, helping them craft their personal stories. Stories destined to land on a stage at TEDxDonovanCorrectional in 2017 and 2018. Donovan Correctional Facility is a California State prison, located at the very southern edge of San Diego County, overlooking the international border shared with Mexico.

To say that the experience was profound would be an understatement. Many of these men had spent the majority of their adult lives incarcerated, which in the beginning led me to question whether they had much in the way of wisdom to share with an audience. But over a two year period I continued to be impressed by the insights, the compassion, and the empathy that formed the foundation of their stories. If I had been talking to them on the phone, I would have assumed they were college educated.

The Longform Interview

So when I read the description for the Longform Podcast with Tessie Castillo and George Wilkerson, I dropped everything to have a listen. While I had heard many stories from prison, none of those stories had come from inmates on death row.

“I want other people to see what I see, which is that the men on death row are human beings. They’re incredibly intelligent and insightful and they have so many redemptive qualities…I don’t think I could really convey that as well as if they get their own voice out there. So I wanted this book to be a platform for them and for their voices.”
–Tessie Castillo

“For me, writing was like a form of conversation with myself or with my past, like therapy. So I just chose these periods in my life that I didn’t really understand and that were really powerful and impactful to me, and I just sat down and started writing to understand them and make peace with them.”
–George Wilkerson

Instead of the usual format, whereby host Aaron Lammer interviews an author, in this case Tessie Castillo, the twist to this episode was calling death row inmate George Wilkerson to bring his voice from inside prison to the outside world.

As often happens in life (I could never have predicted that I would spend time coaching inmates inside prison) Tessie had no connection to death row or the death penalty when she met someone at a Super Bowl party who happened to be a psychologist working with death row inmates at a prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.

When she found out that the new warden was permitting classes on death row, Tessie applied to teach a journaling class. Her discovery of who these men had become was similar to my own. It would behove you to spend 43 minutes listening to the interviews. You’ll come to view men on death row in a new light.

Essays From Death Row

Beyond the Longform podcast, and the basis for the conversation, was the book Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row, written by Tessie Castillo and death row inmates: George Wilkerson, Terry Robinson, Michael Braxton, and Lyle May.

Crimson Letters by Tessie Castillo

Through thirty compelling essays written in the prisoners’ own words, Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row offers stories of brutal beatings inside juvenile hall, botched suicide attempts, the terror of the first night on Death Row, the pain of goodbye as a friend is led to execution, and the small acts of humanity that keep hope alive for men living in the shadow of death.

Each carefully crafted personal essay illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and the cycle of dehumanization and brutality that continues inside prison. At times the men write with humor, at times with despair, at times with deep sensitivity, but always with keen insight and understanding of the common human experience that binds us.

Beginning with the journaling class that she started, Tessie frames the narrative from the perspective of someone who has walked the halls and forged story-based bonds with the men. The series of essays that comprise most of the book take you inside the hearts and minds of these inmates, as well as take you back in time to share the trauma of their childhood experiences.

After spending time with these men and listening to their stories, I don’t claim to know them thoroughly or to fully comprehend why they did what they did. Nor do I defend the crimes of any many on Death Row…But I will defend their humanity because I see it every time I walk through those prison doors.
–Tessie Castillo, excerpt from the Raleigh News & Observer, May 2014

It took me back to my time at Donovan, hearing about lives so different than my own, making it difficult to predict how I would have acted in such circumstances, how my life would have turned out. It’s not a matter of blaming others, or wanting a hall pass for mistakes, but the harsh reality is that downward spirals are challenging, even for the best of us, especially when navigating through a turbulent world of drugs, crime and violence.

The spankings had started a year before our mom left. At first it was just a few pops on the butt every couple weeks or so. But as time went on, the slaps hardened and became more frequent, the bruises took longer to heal. Then he began whipping off his heavy leather belt and the slaps turned into punches that cracked bones.
–George Wilkerson

One of the most difficult aspects of spending sixteen years on Death Row is being stowed away from the outside world. Unlike other facilities, Death Row implements a measure of isolation that wedges a gap in the mental evolution of its denizens.
–Terry Robinson

Our culture was built on three main pillars: Fightin’, stealin’, and gettin’ drunk. Fightin’ was a rite of passage and it determined your position in the hood hierarchy. The better you were at fightin’, the higher your status.
–Michael J. Braxton

In prison, night’s hourglass has extra holes in it. When sleep comes, gone are the plodding daylight hours, confining walls, and thoughts of letters. Sleep is relief for most of us. With this blessed comfort comes dreams of love, companionship, and peace. Desires glow so vivid and deep that reality is a disheartening comparison. Sleep cannot be degraded, beaten or chained. In sleep lies our freedom.
–Lyle May

“I believe that little separates people inside Death Row from those outside it. We are all a complex jumble of hopes, dreams, virtues and mistakes. We strive to be better people. We often fail. Being human is learning to rise again – as these me do, despite the odds – to prove we are more than our worst crime.”
–Tessie Castillo

Time to Reflect

While there is a dark sadness within some of the pages, there is also bright joy that comes from these four big hearts. And though it may not be an intuitive conclusion, as I finished the last page the notion occurred to me that these men have learned more about themselves, and applied that learning to become far more compassionate humans than most of us ever will while we blissfully enjoy our ‘freedom’.

Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity, like some people say. It is where humanity is rediscovered and restored. On Death Row the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death. We are all human beings and as such we’re prone to mistakes, but many inmates are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own. We can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases a second chance. No matter our personal or collective opinions, no one will ever deserve to die.
–Terry Robinson

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