A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Success Stories: Life Skills Through Literature, January 1997

Why Literature?

The Power of Stories

by Robert Waxler

Our ideas about literature in prison are based in part on a belief that offenders often commit criminal acts because they operate from a value system that gives priority to emotions and primal instinct rather than to reason and critical thinking. We need to challenge that single-minded value system by using novels and short stories that unfold the complexity and diversity of character and human consciousness.

Reading is a direct and immediate engagement with language. Discussing what we read intensifies this engagement, giving us an increased sense of authority and self-confidence. As we build language skills, we build life skills. We learn our place within the world of language. In an important sense, by reading and discussing what we read, we all create our own place in the world. We become productive citizens.

Good literature can affect the lives of criminal offenders in many significant ways. When they interact with good literature, criminal offenders are engaged with stories and with language that inevitably have psychological, sociological, ethical, and spiritual dimensions for them. Why is this important? What are some of its implications?

Literature allows criminal offenders to feel personal experiences through their senses and encourages them to reflect on those experiences. When they read a good story, they experience that story as if it were their own because language and the images created carry a sensuous quality that they can feel "on their pulse." In a sense, literature holds a mirror up to the patterns of life and so makes people aware of those patterns. As a result, it helps criminal offenders to be aware of themselves, to be self-evaluative, and to develop life skills for negotiating new relationships with those around them.

Literature also contributes to the exercise of the moral imagination. Because it helps people see the various dimensions of an experience and makes them think about the complexity and value of human experience, literature encourages criminal offenders to empathize with others and to understand their inner selves, their motives and behavior.

Literature can teach criminal offenders that they are not alone. The experiences they read about in a good story are often their own experiences cast in a different light. In a way, all the stories they read are their own stories, and as such, help offenders to understand not only themselves, but also to recognize that others have gone through similar difficulties.

Literature helps offenders to understand that there are many ways of thinking about a person or an event. Reading a good story is like going on an archaeological dig: There are many levels of meaning to discover, and there is much to explore beneath the surface. In this context, literature draws people away from the surface of life and compels them to recognize the feelings and interior emotions of others.

Literature compels criminal offenders to think about their motives and behavior in new ways. It shows them that actions have consequences. More important, perhaps, it teaches them that they have the ability to choose their actions. Good stories always clarify the boundaries of our mortality and demonstrate our limitations as human beings, but good stories also prove that although we do not have complete control over our lives, we do have some power to create options and alternatives.

Literature can free criminal offenders from the mind-forged manacles of their own consciousness by clarifying the experiences of their past and offering them opportunities to create a future. In this sense, good stories are intense moments of concentrated time. Too many criminal offenders appear caught in a one-dimensional, present moment. Literature reminds them of their own past and allows them to compare that past with their present. Consequently, it allows offenders to shape events and make judgments about those events. It gives them an opportunity to exorcise the past that haunts them, the nightmares that imprison their minds.

Good stories offer criminal offenders the opportunity to enhance life's meaning in other ways as well. A good story can, for example, offer a broad and inclusive picture of the range of human emotions. Through reading, they meet people that they have not known and encounter new and unexpected experiences. Criminal offenders can learn from literature that life has energy and possibilities previously unknown to them.

The best literature always entertains as well as teaches. It can offer adventure to break the boredom of mundane life, can give us comedy to make us laugh, or tragedy to make us cry.

Finally, reading and discussing good literature are closely connected activities that give power to each other, just as the power of literature is closely connected to the power of language itself. By its very nature, the use of language is a social activity; language connects us to each other and to ourselves. When criminal offenders talk about good stories around a table, they are using language to explore their own selves and, at the same time, interacting with others. Language gives them the power to express and reveal themselves and to persuade and gain understanding from others. When they use language to articulate their feelings and ideas, they also stop themselves from committing acts of violence.

Program Profile

Running a Program

When forming a discussion group for literature, I recommend that each group be limited in size from eight to ten individuals. Although the participants should know how to read, they need not be sophisticated readers. It is my view that the facilitator of the discussion should also be of the same gender as the offenders so that they can in part identify with him or her. The offenders should be expected to come to every class having read the stories, and they should be prepared to participate in the discussions. As part of their preparation, they can consider such questions as:

Focus Discussion on the Story and Characters

The facilitator of the discussion group should work with the idea that topics being talked about from the stories mirror themes the participants are wrestling with in their own lives. However, the discussion should center on the stories and characters in the texts, not on the individual offenders. It is reasonable to encourage the discussion to broaden to themes such as male identity, male violence, the behavior of characters facing authority, and the relationship between the individual and the society. But the discussions should always remain rooted in the story and should always return to examples from the story. In the end, these discussions are about literature, not about personal therapy.

Draw Out the Voice and Identity of the Participants

Reading and discussing literature is a process of socialization. Through such a process, criminal offenders can rediscover identity and voice. The facilitator must work to draw this voice out and must be convinced that each participant has a perspective worthy of attention and articulation, a perspective that can add something to the story's meaning. In the process, all the participants can discover not only important lessons about themselves, but also glimpse various patterns of consciousness that appear to operate within our contemporary culture.

Try to Meet for One-and-a-Half to Two Hours

If possible, each session should meet for one-and-a-half to two hours, with discussion focusing on a couple of short stories or a novel each time. I recommend starting with a short story such as "Greasy Lake" by T. Corghessan Boyle.

One Example

Novels and short stories can have a dramatic effect on people in prison. But for that to happen, offenders need to know that literature can carry personal associations and can enhance their own dignity. Thus, it is important to use stories that directly connect with their lives. Moreover, it is appropriate that discussions about such stories be conducted in single-gendered groups. Male (or female) bonding and camaraderie can easily develop through the reading and discussion of good stories; part of the challenge is to make it clear that it is happening through language.

I recall meeting one group of criminal offenders for a series of literature discussions at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth a few years ago. That was the beginning of our "Changing Lives Through Literature Program." There were eight male offenders in that first group, eight men with a total of 148 criminal convictions. They needed a change in their lives, and I was convinced that literature could help provide the life skills to bring about that change.

One offender, Jeff, had quit school after eighth grade. He had become a drug dealer, making, according to his own story, more money than most college graduates. Jeff had an impressive memory and clearly loved challenges. Eventually, he would tell me that the only challenge he had found equal to the streets was the literature discussed around our table.

Jeff was 22 years old, with a young daughter and a dedicated girlfriend. A part of him was still drawn to the streets and his buddies there, but another part of him wanted a change from the revolving door of drugs and violence and felt that literature could help him achieve it.

I have always believed that good literature has a healing power. At its best, it can make people self-reflective and thoughtful. It can give them confidence and hope. And, in fact, during the 12 weeks that these men gathered to talk about stories concerned with issues like male identity and violence, literature did prove that it could change lives; it could make a difference. Interestingly enough, it may have changed my life as much as it changed those of the criminal offenders.

One night, for example, we were discussing the novel Deliverance, a story by James Dickey about four suburban men who decide to take a white-water canoe trip through the swamps and rivers of the Deep South. The trip along the river grows increasingly chaotic for these men. It is as if they confront their own wildness in the rapids, finally uncovering their buried rage. In their rush down the river, one of them dies; all of them are changed utterly. Their trip is clearly a trip into the self, and those reading and discussing the story take a similar trip and discover new territory in their own psychic terrain.

"As I was reading the novel," said John, one of the offenders around the table that night, "I was trying to picture myself in the characters' places." John finally identified with the character named Ed. Ed is not the macho leader of the group, but a man who procrastinates until he is called on to deliver. And in the end he does deliver. As John put it, he, like Ed, often hesitated; but in the end, he says, "I can do what has to be done."

Like Ed, John recognized himself through his experiences and through his ability to reflect on those experiences. Both he and Ed became empowered, found their strength, understood they could make choices. Through that reading group, the characters in the book and the participants all joined together, came alive, were bound to each other through the miracle of language. We shaped our own characters by recognizing and forming the boundaries and limitations of the fictional characters we were discussing.

I have found through working with several groups that on the whole these men love adventure stories with action-filled plots that hold their attention. They want to be spellbound, and literature can provide such seduction. But, in the end, it is not the plot as much as the characters that possess us and then set us free. It is as if a part of the character in the story mirrors a part of our own lives, and then we interact with that character and each other. In the process, we learn important lessons about ourselves and the society that surrounds us.

Sea Wolf by Jack London is another novel popular with many of the men in these groups. It is a story of a rugged captain, Wolf Larsen, and his first mate, Humphrey Van Weyden. Larsen is a man of great passion and rage. He believes that might makes right. By contrast, Weyden is wimpish at first, but gains in strength as the story evolves. By the end, Van Weyden is delivered, while Larsen dies. "I used to be like Wolf Larsen," one of the men once claimed. I thought I could manipulate everyone. I was stupid then."

And that is part of the power of literature. It allows men filled with rage to give that rage shape, to recognize it, and so finally to understand it. In some of the groups I will ask the men to read Affliction by Russell Banks. That story is about the affliction of rage itself. Perhaps too often, the story reminds the men of their own families and of the lives they have lived. They recall the revolving door of family violence and talk about the way such violence is perpetuated, as it is in the Whitehouse family, from generation to generation.

In the process of discussing such a story, these men get to know their own limitations. The story forces them to challenge themselves and make a choice. And this is where the hope comes, the magic, the possibility of transformation. Around the table, that rage and violence take a form created by language. The shaping power of words takes on its own life, has its own energy, becomes its own habit. Through the reading and discussion of such literature, men are initiated into new dimensions of consciousness shaped by a language that yields understanding.

Most criminal offenders that I have talked to about good stories have felt isolated for too long. They have been pushed to the margins of the mainstream and have, in essence, lost their voice and their connection to acceptable patterns within society. It is as if they are stuck in a perpetual present moment. Literature helps liberate them from that prison, giving them a sense they can create a future for themselves. Literature gives them the opportunity to see that there are many perspectives on an event, many dimensions to a moment in time.

Sample Lesson Plan

"Greasy Lake"

This short story can be handed out at the first session, and the participants can then read it silently. It should take about a half-hour for everyone to finish.


"Greasy Lake" tells the story of three 19-year-olds (the narrator, Jeff, and Digby) who drive up to Greasy Lake, a local hangout, late one light to see if they can find any last-minute excitement before they head home. They find much more than they anticipated. Before they head home in the early morning, it is clear, as the story's Bruce Springsteen epigram suggests, that they have been "about a mile down on the dark side of Route 8." The criminal offenders that I have talked with usually enjoy this story and identify with it, in part because it is a journey from innocence to experience and in part because it represents an adventure that leads to the thrill of danger and its consequences.

The story opens with the image of three young men creating their identity from the cultural signs of the times. They are trying to project an image of being "dangerous characters" because it is "good to be bad." We learn quickly, though, that these boys are typical middle class, suburban types, going to college, borrowing their parents' Bel Air car, and living at home over the summer. When they get to Greasy Lake though, they lose their keys, and, metaphorically at least, their footing in the darkness. It is as if they have entered a new territory of consciousness and experience, and for them it is frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

At Greasy Lake, the boys get into a fight with "a bad greasy character," whom the narrator in a terrifying rage hits with a tire iron, knocks out, and for awhile assumes he has murdered. Pumped by primal instinct, the three boys then attack the greaser's girlfriend, who is saved only by the lights on a car filled with another group of young men pulling into the parking lot.

When the second car, a Trans Am, shines its light on the narrator and his friends, they bolt for the woods, with the narrator landing in the midst of Greasy Lake itself. There the narrator seems to wrestle with his own darkness and mortality. In fact, the narrator discovers a corpse floating in the water just as he hears the voices on the shore ready to attack him. The young men on the shore, however, settle for smashing the BelAir and eventually leave. The narrator and his friends then emerge from the woods, discover the lost keys as daylight breaks, have one final encounter with two older girls looking for their friend (the corpse), and drive home. It has been an interesting night, a ride on the dark side.

Starting the Discussion

I usually start the discussion about this story by asking about the three boys:

Through this line of discussion, we usually gain a good understanding of these characters and then move to an exploration of larger questions, such as:

Second Line of Discussion

Related to this initial line of discussion is a second line. The three young men are, in a sense, on a journey not only to Greasy Lake, but into their own self. When they lose their keys, they seem to enter a different world, one that they know little about, but one that is exciting and taps into their own primal energy.

I ask the criminal offenders:

In this context, I try to focus the discussion on a pattern common to many of the stories — and to the lives of the offenders. It is a pattern that suggests the seduction and thrill of adventure and violence, but also the destructive force within that unleashing of raw instinct and energy. We all feel that force and sense its power. Yet, we must all recognize what it does to our human connectiveness and, ultimately, to ourselves.

The discussion usually turns on the beating of the greaser and the potential rape of his girlfriend. I then ask questions like the following:

Such questions evoke a variety of responses, such as:

He must be thinking about the fact that he has gone too far.

He must be thinking of his own death.

He must be thinking about how he almost killed the guy on the shore.

He must be wondering how he ever got in this mess.

Such responses allow us to explore the meaning of the adventure itself, the power and intoxication one feels when the adrenaline flows and the primal instincts are unleashed. The result of such a discussion is the beginning of a recognition that we have choices, and an understanding that human experiences are complex and ambiguous and often reflect a shared pattern of behavior.

A Third Line of Decision

Near the end of the discussion, I will usually begin to pursue another line of inquiry. I will ask such questions as:

Sample Lesson Plan


During the weeks that follow the opening session, I usually try to pick books that offer new challenges and at the same time deepen the understanding of central themes. The first few weeks I will ordinarily choose books that are relatively short and easily accessible. It is important to challenge the readers' thinking and literacy skills though; so as we move through the sessions, I try to select books of increasing difficulty and length. One of the more difficult yet rewarding novels in this context is Affliction by Russell Banks.


Rolfe Whitehouse, the younger brother of Wade Whitehouse, narrates this story about male violence, small-town life, hunting, and family traditions and habits. In a sense, Rolfe wants to rid himself of his brother's haunting story and defend himself against its violence. He also wants to understand what happened to his brother and to discover why it didn't happen to him.

The story's central figure is Wade — middle-aged, divorced, living in his small hometown in New Hampshire. Wade is a disappointed blue-collar worker whose best moments were back in high school (although even then he had to contend with beatings from his father). Through Rolfe, we first glimpse Wade in a tension-filled relationship with his young daughter Jill, who now lives with her mother Lillian and Lillian's new husband.

It is the beginning of the deer hunting season, so we sense the underlying rituals and tradition of male violence permeating this small-town culture. We meet:

The story explores the frustration of Wade as a man and his inability to assert power and authority, whether over his daughter or at the school crossing that he supposedly controls as a kind of police officer. It traces this frustration back to his own childhood and to his father's violence, drinking, inability to show compassion, and relentless need for control. In the end, Wade himself will spin out of control, killing his father in an irrational rage to release himself from the violence and the affliction of his life. He will also shoot Jack Hewitt before disappearing (or so we are led to believe).

Starting the Discussion

The discussion of this book, like that of so many rich and complex stories, can take many different directions and can last for several sessions over many hours. I usually limit the discussion to two hours, but there is always a lot more to be said. I begin with the opening scenes that show Wade nervous and uncomfortable as he picks up his daughter Jill and takes her from Concord to his small town. He wants to love and care for her, but he also needs to control her. He wants to be respected as a father, but he cannot discipline and respect himself. As readers, we glimpse his struggle; and although it is difficult to forgive, we understand it.

Using this opening discussion with the group, I begin to explore Wade's conception of the relationship between power and manhood, asking such questions as:

Broadening the Discussion

Such questions inevitably lead us to other characters, those in positions of power, for example, but who often appear manipulative and self-serving.

We also discuss Wade's relationship to his brother Rolfe and, further back, to his father Glenn. Rolfe has avoided perpetuating the affliction of family violence by leaving town, getting a job as a teacher who does not connect very deeply to his emotions, and never marrying or setting up a family of his own. By contrast, Wade has stayed to struggle in his own hometown and wants at least to regain responsibility as a father. We usually explore this contrast in some detail:

Related Line of Inquiry

Ordinarily, I will also explore issues and scenes related to the shooting of Evan Twombley during his hunting trip. It is never clear whether Twombley shot himself or was killed (perhaps as part of a conspiracy, perhaps by Jack Hewitt). The mystery itself is intriguing and fun to talk about. It also raises sophisticated issues about the telling of stories and, by implication, the power and authority of narrative:

These are questions that not only help us to think about stories, but about life itself. They underscore one of the central premises of this project: That good stories help us to change our lives because our lives are stories we can change. In the end, the lessons we learn from books have the power to transform all of us.

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