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A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden – Stephen Reid  

by Venky

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Stephen Reid bemoans the dearth of ‘prison literature’. He also wonders whether it is because of the absence of writers and journalists being convicted with a more ‘acceptable’ regularity. For after all, only when a Dostoevsky is arraigned does one get to experience the joys of reading ‘Crime and Punishment’. If Alexander Solzhenitsyn was not banished to do the hard yards, the world would be much the poorer for Gulag literature. Reid, then proceeds to ‘right’ the anomaly by penning a prison classic himself. Convicted to eighteen years in prison after an attempted bank heist, and the consequent escape plan goes pear shaped, Reid mournfully reminisces a life spent stealing millions, sticking drug filled needles into reluctant veins with such regularity that his arms are a cartographical evidence of remorse and remonstration, sucking up (literally) to a pedophile who also happens to be his first preceptor on substance abuse (in addition to incredibly, being a doctor). More than anything else, “A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden” is a soulful elegy to a life which knows there is not going to be any redemption.

Reid was a serial bank robber, going by the moniker of ‘the stopwatch bank robber’. Reid always wore a stopwatch around his neck whilst robbing a bank. His heists were usually accomplished within a span of two minutes. Until it became one robbery too many. Reid’s tryst with calamity began when he was all of eleven years old. An older man, going by the name of Paul, and a doctor to boot, lures him into his car, injects him with morphine and sexually abuses him. Addicted to the ‘high’, Reid repeatedly keeps getting drawn to Paul. This addiction determines the next four decades of Reid’s life – chasing a drug induced high and getting acquainted with various prison cells across the United States and Canada.

Reid adopts a dualistic view of his life that is almost Cartesian in nature. He wishes he could bring a meat cleaver to a metaphysical butcher to carve out the violent and irrational person in him, thereby leaving to the world and his own doting family, a sane, loving, caring father, husband, and son. It is such musings that make this book a compelling read. Shackled within the confines of an ominous and foreboding prison that is buffeted by the sea, Reid, under the careful and unerring gaze of the prison guards wanders the coastline, collecting an assortment of detritus that are washed ashore. Such detritus, for him, represents a form of tranquil communication with a world that is emblematic of freedom. A world that could have been his for the taking, and one which can still be his to enjoy, if only he can bring about a certain degree of restraint and character.

Reid also manages to finish writing a book in prison and gets it published courtesy Susan Musgrave, an editor who ultimately ends up becoming his wife. Just when life seems to have taken a turn for the good, Reid gets lulled by the demon of addiction. Deep in debt, he sees no option other than the tried and tested one of emptying out a bank, to repay his dues to dangerous drug peddlers. The outcome: an extended bout in jail, yet again.

Juxtaposing humour with logic, Reid provides an inside out perspective on the Canadian Correction System, a series of management and psychological techniques instituted to reform hard nosed prisoners. Reid shares psychotherapy sessions with serial murderers and compulsive killers as the convicts sit around in a circle and answer questionnaires in addition to providing a detailed rendition of their heinous crimes.

In a Chapter titled,  ‘The Zen of the Chain’, Reid provides valuable advice to the rustic and uninitiated prisoner on being constantly transferred to various penitentiaries.  “A small white box will be tossed into your lap every day. This is lunch,“; “You will feel completely alone, because you are,” and thoughtfully, “Grow your fingernails.” The last piece of advice to peel oranges whose skins are as hard as nails.

Scavenging for items washed ashore, Reid spots a crowbar delicately hidden in the sand. A testimony to a failed escape attempt by two prisoners, this instrument poignantly reminds Reid, of his own life and loss. “Being behind bars for so much of my life, has taught me that everything is bearable, that sorrow must be kept close, buried in the secret garden.”

A Crowbar in The Buddhist Garden” is a rumination over a past gone astray, and an attempt to reign in the future from going askew.

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