Getting Life

He raised his hand. He looked quite young but had been there 20 years, a juvenile lifer due to a mistake at 17.

"I have questions for you, Ms. Scheer," he said, glancing down at his paper. He sat tall, an earnest man with intelligence.

How did you choose this story. How did the story make you grow as a person. Which character did you most identify with, and why.

This was the Life Change Book Club at a Level 2 prison in west Michigan. Here was Kenyatta who had prepared for my visit; Marcus, too. And others among the 14, who fidgeted through my introduction with their papers, so eager to say what they had written down that they asked what I had already just answered.

"They're calling me a 'speaker' tonight," I said, "but I'm just a person who had this book happen to her," I told them. I had passed through a barbed-wire fence wearing a device with a red emergency button that had been tested after I attached it to my belt. I had been frisked, and so unaccustomed to this had to be told where to put my arms. I was just a person, sure, but I was a person sitting in a prison with 14 men who had read my book, who quoted it back to me, and asked me about sentences I forgot were there.

I would hope I matured some while writing my book, which is about forgiveness and love and second chances, and I said as much to answer Kenyatta's question. "But let me turn that back at everybody," I added. "How did reading the book help you?

I realized that my crime affected lots of people, not just my victim. The family members, the emergency workers. The people who read the newspaper article: I'm worried they will be troubled, too.

The therapist told Kevin he did a good job, and that's what he needed to hear. He said, "You did everything right." People need to hear they're doing a good job.

I saw that forgiveness is a process. You took us through that; it's not quick. Rick said he didn't know if he could have done that, offer forgiveness. He sat across from Kevin with his wife and saw that Kevin was alone, and didn't think he could forgive someone like Kevin forgave him.

"Life is not tidy," I said. "It doesn't wrap up neatly with a bow. Maybe it didn't feel in the book like Rick changed enough. But he recognized he had been given a second chance, and we end the book knowing he's grateful. Real life has more of that kind of thing than straight-up happy endings."

I was talking too much, but they leaned in--as I did, careful not to bump the red button with my elbow. For I was not in danger. This--our discussion--was not the second chance Rick had received, but it was a living thing in a flourescent-lit room. Life surrounded by wire, burning inside those doing endless time. By now the men whose eyes had scanned the floor were with me. I knew they responded to my book and to the fact that a criminal was set free, but who cares, really? It's just a book, not a 12-step program.

Can books really make a difference? I asked. Because I wasn't sure.

"I can't go anywhere," Mark said, "but through books, I do. I travel places when I read. I've done a lot of drugs, but this is the best trip I've been on."

"I was right there in your book," Kenyatta said. "I blew the weed, I hid it in my pocket. I walked through that church with Kelly. Kelly was a strong woman. I know this was real life, but she was my favorite character. A strong woman, how she could leave those pictures up there, walk when she knew people were watching her."

"I was Rick. I was Kevin. These were instrumental moments for me."

We wrapped up before it was over; the men were so used to being shuttled out of a room at a moment's notice, they wanted to be sure to have an official end. A man there for killing his wife closed us in prayer. Another who hadn't spoken yet that night said, "Can I ask a selfish request that I know everybody's thinking. Could you sign our books?"

I always turn awkward when asked for my autograph, so I've taken to writing "all the best!" or "thanks for your support" on the title page, then signing my name.

I wrote my usual on Marcus's copy and handed it to him. "Could you make it more personal?" he asked, handing it back. "'To Marcus,' right there?"

Mark stood in front of me. "Mark with a c or a k?" I asked. He looked surprised. "A k," he said. "Thanks so much for asking."

The quiet man came up to me with his book opened to a page in the middle. I started to flip back to the title page when he stopped me.

"No--sorry--could you sign it right there, please?"

He found the page again, which has just one phrase:

Thy will be done

"To Andre." "All the best, Amy Scheer." Thy will be done.

Dwayne, the group's resident poet, read a piece he had written for Martin Luther King Day. He wanted to give the paper to me, but I could only leave with the book I brought, and which had been logged onto a form, which was then copied in triplicate.

The officers couldn't know I left with so much more than I had walking in.

FRAMES is available at Schuler Books & Music,, and on the shelves of Hearts and Minds bookstore. Visit our facebook page, too.


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