Suggested Reading List for Addicts

By: Anne O’Toole-Bolthrunis, editor

My life has been touched by addicts.

Although I don’t know anyone who has gone to jail or been through an alternative sentencing program like Changing Lives Through Literature, I know many people who have found solace for their addictions in different forms of literature. AA and NA have their own “literature”, mostly with vaguely or blatant religious overtones. There are daily meditations and articles about the various steps used in these programs. To people who follow 12 Step Programs, these writings can have a profound impact on the recovering addict.

However, there are other novels, articles, and various writings that may also have such an impact. Different people find solace in different places – church, support groups, therapists, friends, and “secular” literature. Some of the writers and works that I have found to have a particular impact include the following:

Self Reliance and Other Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson: The pivotal transcendentalist’s major work encourages the reader to trust him or herself and to work hard to achieve difficult goals. The writing is accessible to all; it’s easy to follow and the lyrical prose is easy to lose yourself in. The goals outlined in these essays are directly related to the addict’s journey – although many 12 Step programs teach the addict to rely on the group and to trust in God, finding inner strength to begin and continue the healing process on their own is also important to recovery. The entire collection is fairly short and each essay can easily be read in one sitting, which makes it an ideal read for someone in early recovery who may not have the attention span to become engaged in a larger work.

Madness: A BiPolar Life by Marya Hornbacher: Although I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone in early recovery (it can get pretty harrowing at times, and detailed descriptions of drinking may be a “trigger” to someone who is not well-set in his or her recovery), it is a great book for someone with a ‘dual diagnosis’ (a diagnosis of addiction coupled with a diagnosis of an organic mental health disorder). Hornbacher is a gifted writer with an amazing attention to detail, and while her account may be difficult to read and may hit very close to home, I have found that many addicts find comfort in other addicts. Reading about someone else’s experience can help the addict to see that not only are they not alone, but other people have had similar experiences and survived and even improved because of them. Hornbacher is also the author of two self-help books for people in recovery who are non-religious – Waiting: a Non-Believer’s Higher Power and Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps, which are particularly helpful to those participating in 12 Step programs who do not consider themselves religious and are turned off by the religious overtones these groups are famous for.

A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown: Another addiction memoir best suited for those later in recovery, A Piece of Cake tells the story of Cupcake Brown, who goes from a happy childhood to a world of abusive foster homes, drugs, gangs, and prostitution. What makes Brown unique is her journey from “trash-can addict” to law student. The first three-quarters of the memoir concentrate on Brown’s life as an addict, but the last quarter is solely about her journey to become a better person. Unlike Hornbacher, Brown does not suffer from a dual diagnosis, so her story may be more universally appealing to addicts, although it should not be read in early recovery due to some ‘triggering’ material.

Novels by Michael Palmer: Palmer is a Massachusetts native and a writer of medical thrillers. What makes him unique among the masses who make their living from writing in this genre is Palmer is a recovering addict. Although issues of recovery do not play heavily into his books, I have found that people in recovery are interested in reading his books because they are entertaining, easy to digest, and show that addicts can overcome their difficulties and become highly successful and functioning members of society. Those in 12 Step programs may also get a kick out of seeing “Dr. Bob”, the founder of AA, in the acknowledgements in all of his books.

Although these books are regularly read by addicts and seem to be encouraging for them, exposing addicts to any literature early in their recovery can be beneficial. Find out what the addict in your life is interested in and find books about the subject and authors who write about it. Some popular, entertaining, mindless novels can be just as beneficial as high-minded addiction specific works. Merely transferring energy an addict would normally spend on their addiction to a new hobby or interest can be enormously positive in any stage of recovery. Self-help, philosophy, and addiction memoir don’t have to make up the bulk of what changes an addict’s life – it might be Stephen King (who has also suffered with addiction), Jodi Picoult, or Mother Theresa. When the time is right, introduce a friend or loved one who is suffering with addiction to your favorite book. Start your own book club. Distraction can be a wonderful thing, and a distraction that has the added benefit of educating can be even more life-changing.

Anne O’Toole-Bolthrunis is the current editor of the CLTL Blog and a graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at UMass Dartmouth. She enjoys reading, writing memoirs, being a connoisseur of music, and, of course, Facebook. She can be reached for comment here.



“Should Criminals Be Sentenced To Read?”

The following essay was originally posted on The New Yorker’s blog, “The Book Bench,” and was written by Eileen Reynolds.

The idea of using reading as punishment seems at first incomprehensible, even for those of us who may have declared “Robinson Crusoe” cruel and unusual when it was assigned in the sixth grade. (Come to think of it, what reader hasn’t privately labeled at least one dreaded tome as “torturous?”) Still, all snark aside, it’s an interesting question: Can—or should—criminals be made to read certain books while they’re serving their time?

I’ve been struggling over what to make of the recent news that a Michigan teen-ager was ordered to read three books per month as a part of his sentence for his involvement in a fatal hit-and-run accident. Back in June, the fifteen-year-old boy fled the scene after he crashed his mother’s Mercedes into another car, killing its driver. He later pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter, driving without a license, and failing to stop at the scene of a crash. Apparently, the victim—fifty-nine-year-old Penny Przywara—had been an avid reader, and the judge got it in his head that it would be a good idea for the teen-age driver to read some of her favorite books. One of Przywara’s daughters said in court that her mother had loved “The Catcher in the Rye,” and the judge decided that the book could teach the boy a lesson. “You could be Holden Caulfield,” he said. “You’ve got a lot to learn about responsibility and about yourself.” The reading assignment will be carried out while the boy is held in a juvenile detention center, where he will remain until he turns nineteen.

Something about this situation calls to mind that part in “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Mrs. Dubose orders Jem to read to her each week as a punishment for having destroyed her precious camellias. At first, Jem and Scout are terrified, and they dread the task. Scout recalls their first visit:

“So you brought that dirty little sister of yours, did you?” was her greeting.

Jem said quietly, “My sister ain’t dirty and I ain’t scared of you,” although I noticed his knees shaking.

I was expecting a tirade, but all she said was, “You may commence reading, Jeremy.” Jem sat down in a cane-bottom chair and opened “Ivanhoe.” I pulled up another one and sat beside him.

“Come closer,” said Mrs. Dubose. “Come to the side of the bed.”

We moved our chairs forward. This was the nearest I had ever been to her, and the thing I wanted most to do was move my chair back again.

But soon, of course, Jem’s attitude begins to change. He learns to tolerate Mrs. Dubose. He matures before our eyes, gradually piecing together truths about the world:

Jem’s chin would come up, and he would gaze at Mrs. Dubose with a face devoid of resentment. Through the weeks he had cultivated an expression of polite and detached interest, which he would present to her in answer to her most blood-curdling inventions.

It’s a poignant scene: a crotchety old woman wants to teach a boy a lesson, and in the process she helps transform him into a patient and pleasant—if not entirely enthusiastic—companion. What happened in Michigan is much more grave, of course. Jem ruined some flowers; the Michigan boy took a woman’s life. I don’t mean to equate the two, or to suggest that we should let dangerous criminals roam free, so long as they’re armed with paperbacks instead of guns. The sentencing of minors is a particularly contentious issue, and there are those who will argue that a fatal hit-and-run crash warrants more than an invitation to the library at the juvenile detention center. But if one takes the view that a sentence—especially for someone so young—should include rehabilitation, assigning books might be a good idea. If we believe that literature really can transform lives and soothe troubled hearts, it can’t hurt to encourage prisoners to read.

There are numerous organizations devoted to this very principle, including Changing Lives Through Literature, a program founded in Massachusetts and later expanded to other courts throughout the United States. Some supporters of “alternative sentencing” believe so strongly in the redemptive power of literature that they argue that certain criminal offenders should be able to complete a reading course as a condition of probation, rather than going to jail at all. Combining traditional sentencing with alternative reading programs might be an innovative way to treat criminals compassionately while simultaneously cutting down the likelihood of repeat offenses.

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Re-Post: “More than One Man, More than One Sentence”

This essay was originally posted on the City Brights Blog, which is an online publication hosted by the SFGate, home to the San Francisco Chronicle.

In its 12th year, the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is a powerhouse in the struggle for justice, opportunity and peace. Under the direction of Jakada Imani, the center has helped close some of California’s most abusive youth prisons, successfully sponsored landmark juvenile justice reform, and created new clean and green opportunities through the groundbreaking work of the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign. In 2008 Jakada and the Ella Baker Center played a lead role in defeating California’s Proposition 6, a dangerous and ineffective “tough on crime” ballot measure that would have forced the state to spend more than a billion dollars annually on failed programs.

The Bay Area native is working to help bring an end to the cycle of violence that plagues much of urban America and to promote reinvestment in our cities using smart solutions and uplifting alternatives to violence and incarceration. A a long-time community organizer and activist, Jakada led a successful campaign to stop the construction in Alameda County of one of the nation’s largest (per capita) juvenile halls in Alameda County — an enormous “Super Jail for Kids.”

For many years before becoming the Executive Director at the Ella Baker Center, I worked with our Books Not Bars campaign which transforms our juvenile justice system to invest in young people, their families, and our communities. Since its inception, the campaign has helped close four of the notoriously abusive California Youth prisons and organized thousands of family members of incarcerated youth and our allies to demand change in the system.

After all those years of working with incarcerated youth and their family members, one thing is extremely clear. A prison does very little to help people behinds bars. In fact, it often makes things worse. Forced to experience outrageous levels of violence, abuse, and neglect, young people often leave California’s youth prisons damaged and unprepared – over 70% are rearrested within two years.

Not only is a prison sentence ineffective at providing those locked up any form of rehabilitation or opportunity for healing, a sentence does little to end the suffering of the victims of a crime. One of the mothers from the Families for Books Not Bars network remains seared into my memory. This woman, was the mother of three kid- her oldest son and her daughter were both serving time in California’s youth prisons. Her younger son was killed in a case of mistaken identity. The understandable devastation she felt at her son’s murder was not so different then the extreme devastation she felt from having two of her children locked up for their own mistakes.

Violence inflicts trauma. Healing from that trauma is a long path. When tragedy strikes, we yearn for justice. However, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again- sentencing one man is not justice.

On Friday, November 5th, a sentence is expected in the trial of Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant. And Mehserle is guilty of murder, even if the jury decided it was merely involuntary manslaughter, and should be held accountable for his actions. But I don’t want any of us to kid ourselves that a longer sentence for Mehserle will equal justice for Oscar Grant..

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The Quieter We Become, the More We Are Able to Hear: Writing with Teens in a Psychiatric Hospital

Ann Teplick is a poet, playwright, and prose writer, with an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College. For eighteen years she has been a Teaching Artist, writing with youth in schools; literary art centers; hospice centers; and Pongo Teen Publishing, in King County juvenile detention, and currently, the Washington state psychiatric hospital.

This essay was originally published by Hunger Mountain’s online literary journal.

Each time my meditation teacher suggested that we “hold” our pain, rather than cling to it or push it away, I wanted to do something un-Buddha like. Like scream, or crack a few obscene jokes, or belt out the lyrics of a Jim Morrison song, where torment seeps like a bruised and mucked-up fruit. Shake up the hushed room.

It took me years to wrap my head around this concept of being gentle with myself, less obsessive. To trust that in hard times, I would not suffocate. And though I’m far from 100%, I’ve come a long way. The effort is constant. I slack, and I’m back in the wilds of anxiety—heart palpitations, wet like I have just walked out of the sea, breathing that is cockeyed, visions of train wrecks and crimson.

And then, one day, the epiphany—

It’s 6:45 a.m. on a beach in Seattle, foggy and damp, my hair wet and strung into curls. A boat horn blares, a heron strolls through the foam of a wave, driftwood and seaweed scatter across the sand. I am perched on a wet-salted rock, crying, cursing, trying to “hold” the unholdable— an indelible personal pain—one hell of a fire, like I have been blowtorched.

When out of nowhere, a barrage of butterflies light upon me—one on my thumb, one on my knee, one on my shoulder, the zipper of my fleece jacket. Who knows how many are on my hood. They are the size of my fist, with wings, veined and coppery, that close and open in slow motion. And they do not fly away, but cocoon me in stillness. The quieter I become, the more I am able to hear.

On Mondays, from October to March, four colleagues and I write poetry with teens at Firwood secondary school, in Lakewood, Washington. Forty-five miles south of Seattle, the school is one of many buildings on the campus of Western State Hospital, a 265-acre psychiatric facility. Western is wooded with trees, wildflowers, owls, eagles, and deer. Yes, butterflies, too. The teens live a stone’s throw away in cottages at the Child Study and Treatment Center (CSTC), the only state run and state operated psychiatric hospital for children in Washington. CSTC serves youth ages 6-17 in two primary programs—Inpatient Services, for youth who cannot be served in a less-restrictive environment, and Forensic Services, a program that conducts mental health evaluations for the Juvenile Court System of Washington State.

We walk into Firwood school at lunchtime, to the aroma of Mac and cheese, sloppy Joes, chips and salsa. The environment is brightly lit and cheerful, with polished floors, art on the walls, and friendly faces of adults and teens, which is not to say there is never a scuffle. We sign in at the reception desk and head to the computer room, high-five a few students we pass in the hall. “Can I write poetry, today?” “How about me? I didn’t get to write last week!” “I’ve got a cool poem back in my room, can I go fetch it?”

My colleagues and I work with The Pongo Teen Writing Project, a volunteer non-profit founded (in 1992) and run by writer Richard Gold. Gold is a compassionate man with a huge heart. He is dedicated to writing with youth who lead difficult lives. In the mid 1970’s, while a graduate student of creative writing in San Francisco, Gold volunteered with teens at a special-needs school,  many of whom were patients at an adolescent psychiatric clinic. He is anchored in the belief that when we write about life’s challenges—from hardship to distress to trauma and grief—we can better understand ourselves and take better control of our lives.
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Voices from the Table: Sheila

on the platform, reading by moriza

Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog:

This essay is the second in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.

The Dorchester Women’s Program classes are smaller, but, according to Judge Sydney Hanlon, a smaller group allows for a more intimate environment in which to discuss themes of violence, illness, responsibilities for children, and unthinkable tragedies (Trounstine and Waxler, 56). At the 2009 CLTL Annual Conference, Probation Officer Adita Vazquez would later share a similar sentiment:

In the CLTL classroom, I’m aware of what’s going on with each of these women, and I’m listening to what they tell us about those stories. And the same thing happens again and again: violence. The classroom is a special environment for them. We discuss are how they should handle it, what’s there to protect them, and how they see themselves.

At the same conference, Judge Hanlon stated that she once sat in a CLTL classroom with eight women, all mothers. At some point in each of their lives, all of these mothers had witnessed shootings, and all of them had life insurance policies on their children. “Hearing something like that changes a judge: you don’t see people the same way again.”
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The Ties that Bind

Book open on table, photo by kvelduf

Jenni Baker is the communications specialist for Goodwill Industries International in Washington, DC. This is her final post as marketing and media advisor for Changing Lives Through Literature. 


Anyone afforded the opportunity to participate in Changing Lives Through Literature will speak of the change it enacts within every person around the table.


Some talk of the affirmation they receive from knowing they are not alone in their thoughts and in their life struggles. Men and women who participate in this program as part of their probation sentence habitually note the affirmation they receive from voicing their insights on an equal playing field with individuals they never considered as equals.   


My time in the program taught me that this affirmation works both ways. As a student of English, I entered the program familiar with literature’s potential to change. I was inexperienced, however, with the power of reading and discussion to overcome obstacles of gender, race, and class.


Just as the participants who had spent time in the justice system thought they knew the judge and probation officers they now sat beside, I brought my own preconceptions to the table that first night. After spending years discussing literature with college peers and academics, I confess I entered the sessions with classist thoughts — I wasn’t sure what kind of valuable conversation I could have with individuals who in many cases did not finish high school.


The answer to that question kept me coming to session after session. Seeing literature change the lives of these criminal offenders week after week was certainly inspiring. On a personal level, however, I was more moved by the connections and conversations that strengthened with each meeting.

Voices from the Table: Ken

photo of a conference room table by fattytuna on Flickr


Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog: 


This essay is the first in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.


Built in Boston’s densely populated inner city, the Dorchester men’s CLTL program is by far the largest, graduating a cohort of 37 men last year and requiring a staff of eight, including two English professors (Taylor Stoehr and Bert Stern), three to four probation officers, a judge, and two former program participants. The class meets for ten weekly sessions of ninety minutes each and uses Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of an American Slave as a primary text.


Ken is a graduate from that large cohort who promptly arrived to meet me at the Dorchester District Courthouse to cover for a last minute interview cancellation.


When asked about his experience in CLTL, Ken particularly appreciated the feedback he received on written assignments:


[CLTL] opened up my way of thinking a whole lot differently. I found myself writing about stuff that I wasn’t even thinking about. And the more I wrote, once I started writing I couldn’t stop. . . Taylor, when he used to give us comments, he said I got a knack for [writing]. Now I want to write my own autobiography one day . . . [Taylor] gave me a lot of input and he gave me some places where I can go if I want to go to school, you know? Like, who to contact for loans or whatever . . . after you graduate you get this booklet, when they read it, they was like, wow man you got some talent . . . [Taylor and Bert] knew I had a real talent in writing, and Taylor he really made me feel good, his comments . . . I felt real good about myself after that.


When asked whether or not CLTL changed his opinions of other people, Ken recalled being struck by a story the presiding judge told during a group session:

Critical Critiques: How Literary Analysis Changes Lives

Open Bible - photo by jypsygen on Flickr

Julia M. O’Brien is Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA.  She is the author of Challenging Prophetic Metaphor:  Theology and Ideology in the Prophets and several commentaries on the prophetic books.  This entry is adapted from her on-line project, Reading the Bible as an Adult, a guide for book clubs, Bible studies, and anyone else who wants to read the Bible like a grown-up, found at her website:


Great writing can guide souls.  Many voices over the centuries have advocated the ennobling power of the well-told tale.


Theirs is a soapbox on which I can stand. Having taught Bible to undergraduates and now to seminary students, I’m convinced that teaching students to read Bible as literature helps it become more, not less, relevant to their lives. 


Reading the Bible purely as an instruction book gets in the way of the reading process. While of course the Bible does offer some explicit rules, most of it, especially the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, is narrative and poetry. Reading a story or a poem only for its moral bottom-line not only leads to odd doctrine but also but makes readers to miss what stories and poems do best:  incite the imagination and let people lose (and find) themselves within the worlds they create.


And yet, I’m equally convinced that the critique of great literature can change lives.  I can affirm that multicultural interpretation and ideology criticism also touch people’s deepest concerns.


David Clemens, author of “Great Books 2.0” sharply contrasts a curriculum focused on “fine literature” with “militant multicultural and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism.” He defines his mission as “to save students who want to study only pop culture from teachers who want to teach only pop culture and administrators who want only packed classes.” 


In his moral universe, the choices are stark:  either lift students up to the mountaintop of meaning by nourishing them on the great Western classics or throw them into murky, meaningless swamp of postmodernism.  Suddenly, I hear echoes of Harold Bloom’s 1994 manifesto The Western Canon and Frank Lentricchia’s announcement several years ago that he was tired of theory and just wanted to read literature.


I’ve witnessed too much to the contrary to believe Clemens, and I can tell stories that challenge his own. 


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Peace Through Fiction

Photo by ejpphoto on Flickr


Nicole Hunter is an adult literacy tutor and a director for Project: LEARN in Cleveland, Ohio. She is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Cleveland State University. She hopes to start CLTL groups through three Cleveland Municipal Court judges who are open to alternative sentencing programs


Kyessa L. Moore’s vibrant quote reminds me of how I feel when using Peace Through Fiction:


“After loving reading for so long, I find I cannot think about it as a static activity of book in hand, in two dimensions, anymore.  Ideas take flight and swirl around me, affecting the shape of all I knew before and how I will think about things in the future. The more I read, the less stable the world around me appears, because the very act of reading changes the nature of reality…”

–Kyessa L. Moore, “Reading Beyond the Page


I created Peace Through Fiction (PTF) as a dialogue method anyone can use with any novel as a way to increase personal and interpersonal peace. Finding a Voice by Jean Trounstine and Robert Waxler confirmed for me what my initial research suggested: Changing Lives and Peace Through Fiction share great similarities. Both provide methods for using fiction to transform our inner lives, behavior, and relationships. Both have frameworks incorporating open questions to guide reflection and dialogue. Both advocate the essential components of empathy, equality, and bringing assumptions into the open.


They differ in one key way: PTF steers readers toward personal stories, using a novel’s characters as springboards. There are also differences of group size (PTF can be done solo) and group members (anyone can use PTF).


Like CLTL, Peace Through Fiction is unconventional. After all, fiction isn’t real, so how can it create peace in our real lives?


Here’s what I’ve come up with. Fiction isn’t real, but the way we personally experience a novel’s characters is real. Reading is a social act: through a shared language, we experience another person’s story. And peace in the world begins with peace in each of us as individuals. So, with the right questions guiding us, we can use fiction to increase our personal and interpersonal peace.


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Reformative Literature: To What End?


by Jenni Baker 

In his recent post, Lawrence Jablecki discussed the conflict between retribution and redemption in criminal sentencing. After recently reading Truman Capote’s nonfiction account of the 1959 Clutter family murders, In Cold Blood, I suggest that we have a similar choice to make in our selection of literature for Changing Lives Through Literature sessions.

In CLTL programs, we stress that everyone has a story. Murderer Perry Smith’s true story—woven on Capote’s sometimes-subjective loom—is as relevant to our discussions as the fictional characters we bring to the table each session (Richard Hickock’s story is also relevant, but I focus on Smith here). As I followed the story of Smith from early childhood to his death on the gallows, I found myself wondering, How important are redemptive or retributive endings in the lives of the literary characters about whom we ask criminal offenders to read?

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