Excerpt from The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Buddhist on Death Row

How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place

by David Sheff

The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff X
The Buddhist on Death Row by David Sheff
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2021, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
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An officer pinned Jarvis down on the hood of a squad car and cuffed his hands behind his back. Cynthia, who'd been staying downstairs at the apartment of Jarvis's other sister, ran outside. Sobbing and screaming, she attacked an officer, punching and clawing him. Jarvis watched the police wrestle her to the ground.


When Melody met Cynthia in her shabby living room, she seemed frail and sad. There were remnants of beauty in her face but it showed the pall of decades of addiction. Cynthia's honesty surprised Melody. In a raspy smoker's voice, she said she'd become a mother at sixteen. She'd had eight children in all. She admitted, "I left Jarvis feeling like he was a motherless child, but I couldn't do any better."

Before she left, Melody asked Cynthia if she'd consider visiting Jarvis—"I think it would do him good"—and Cynthia agreed to come.


Back in the prison, Jarvis wanted to hear every detail about the visit. As Melody talked, he pictured his mother. He remembered her beauty and gentleness but also her absence and volatility. He recalled sitting with her watching TV, and then she would get up and disappear. After a while he'd go look for her and find her passed out on the toilet in a heroin stupor. He would try to wake her up and get her to bed. Every time, he was afraid she might be dead.

He also remembered the men who came and went. He ran into a stranger in the living room, and Cynthia would say, "Give Jarvis some money, Daddy." Then to Jarvis, "Run down and get some candy."

Though he'd been only five, Jarvis vividly recalled the day police came to the house and found him and his sisters living in squalor. Social workers took the children to Child Protective Services, where they were separated. Jarvis was taken to a small room with two gentle-seeming women. One lifted him onto a table and removed his shirt. They looked in horror at the bruises and scars that covered his body.

Jarvis shook that memory aside and instead looked ahead to his mother's visit. He thought of the things he wanted to tell her most: he missed her, and he loved her.


Jarvis put his mother's name on his visitors list, and he eagerly awaited her arrival. But she never showed up. One morning, through the bars of his cell door, he saw the prison chaplain approaching. Inmates knew that the chaplain didn't come around just to chat. His visit meant bad news.

The chaplain told Jarvis that one of his sisters had called with a message. Their mother had a heart attack. She didn't make it.

The chaplain said, "I'm sorry, Masters," and left the tier.

Jarvis began trembling, and then his shock morphed into fury.

He pounded his fists into the cell wall until his knuckles bled.

For weeks, he remained distraught over his mother's death and fuming because he wasn't allowed to attend her funeral. He paced his cell, refused yard time, and cursed out a guard who, in response, slammed him into a wall.


Meanwhile, Melody continued to interview people for her report, and she was delighted when she could bring news that might pick up Jarvis's spirits. She'd been in touch with his younger sister, Carlette, who planned to come up from Los Angeles to see him.

Jarvis added another name to his list of approved visitors, and this time it was not in vain. On the morning of the visit, he was escorted to the visiting hall where his sister waited on the other side of a Plexiglas window.

Carlette began crying when she saw him. Finally she collected herself enough to speak his name: "Jarvis." She stared at her big brother and said it again: "Jarvis."

Jarvis responded without emotion. He gave a slight nod before asking, "What's up, baby sister?"

She asked, "Are you all right?" "I'm fine," he said flatly.

"What's it been like in there? Are you okay?" He shrugged. "What do you think?"

She repeated, "Are you okay?"

From The Buddhist on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place by David Sheff. Copyright © 2020 by David Sheff. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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